New Delhi: Following viral videos of the incident where she is chased and hectored by a mob of young Hindu men in saffron shawls, Bibi Muskan Khan, a teenage Muslim student from Karnataka, is being admired nationwide for her bravery and defiance, but her tryst with fame came after a prior act of courage.
The mob, who she said were not students from her college, stopped her at the gate of the PES College in south Karnataka’s Mandya town and refused her entry unless she took off her hijab. She refused, instead gunned the accelerator of her scooter and sped past them.
They rushed in behind her and as she walked towards her class, they mobbed her.
“I was initially scared,” the B Com second year-student told Article 14. “But as soon as I took the name of Allah, I felt courageous and shouted Allahu Akbar.”
The incident took place amidst controversy and violence in Karnataka over the ban on entry of Muslim girl students in several colleges across the state. The move comes after Hindu students started wearing saffron coloured scarves and shawls in opposition to hijabs worn by young Muslim women.
The bravery shown by Muskan was widely hailed, with many calling her (here and here) an icon of the ongoing resistance of young Muslim woman against a hijab ban. It even attracted international attention with Pakistani Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai tweeting: “Refusing to let girls go to school in their hijabs is horrifying. Objectification of women persists — for wearing less or more. Indian leaders must stop the marginalisation of Muslim women.”
Her father Hussain Khan, who runs a gym, described her as a “courageous girl” and said he was proud of her for resisting the mob. He said her ambition was to be a lawyer.
Within 24 hours, her act of resistance to the mob became the subject of iconography (here and here), used as profile pictures and statuses on social media accounts, and right-wing social media, immediately tried to run her down: The fact-checking website AltNews reported on 9 February how Kreately, a pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) website, falsely claimed the photo of another young Muslim woman in jeans was that of Muskan, implying she did not normally wear a hijab.
The incident that inadvertently embroiled Muskan began on 31 January, after six students were barred from entering the Government Women’s PU College in Udupi in coastal Karnataka. The question of educational institutions imposing a ban on the hijab spilled into other colleges in a state governed by the BJP.
A government order on 5 February prescribed a uniform dress code for government and private schools, and for colleges under the pre-university department, which required students to wear a “dress which will not affect equality, integrity and law and order”.
The order argued that banning headscarves or Hijabs does not violate the fundamental right to freedom of religion protected under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. As Hindu extremist groups distributed saffron shawls and turbans and Hindu students hectored their college mates and riotous situations developed outside colleges in at least four districts, Chief Minister Basvaraj Bommai on 8 February announced a three-day closure of schools and colleges in the state.
On 9 February, as the Karnataka High Court heard petitions against the order, the state government on Wednesday banned protests, gatherings, and agitations within a 200 metre radius of any education institution for two weeks. The same day, the Karnataka High Court referred the petitions filed by Muslim women students, challenging the hijab ban, to a larger bench.
One petition filed by a Muslim woman student argued that wearing a hijab was essential to Islam and protected under Article 14, the right to equality, and Article 25. A second petition challenged the government order of 5 February. Edited excerpts from our interview:
Can you please recount what you faced at college? What was going on in your head when you faced the mob?
They first stopped me at the gate asking me to remove the hijab and go ahead. They said we will not let you in with the burkha. They said ‘If you do not want to remove the burkha then you better go home. If you want to enter college then take off your hijab.’ They tried to surround me but I sped through on my bike and went in.
When I was walking towards my class, they huddled in a group and started shouting Jai Shree Ram, Jai Shree Ram and closed in to attack me. Seeing them I was initially a bit scared, but as soon as I took the name of Allah I felt courageous and shouted Allahu Akbar.
What happened after that? Did anyone come to your help?
My principal, my lecturers and everyone in the college supported me. The principal did not say anything about my hijab. Those who heckled me were outsiders. They created a spectacle in my college.
Did you think you would have such an experience when you left home in the morning?
I had heard reports of issues over hijab in colleges. Our principal had also advised us to be careful and remove the hijab at home until the court order. But why should we remove the hijab? It is our priority. So, I went to the college with my head covered. The principal and teachers supported me after this episode.
After your video went viral you have become an icon and people have come out in your support. How do you see it?
It has encouraged me and boosted my confidence. When I returned home I was scared and shocked because there were so many men and they could have harmed me. But everyone after that has supported me.
I am surprised the way the video has gone viral. It is unbelievable. My photo from the incident has become a symbol of the protests for hijab. It has been designed into art.
What is the hijab for you?
I feel good wearing the hijab. As a Muslim, I am proud of it.
What would you say to those who ask you to remove your hijab?
We do not lecture them on what culture they want to follow. India has freedom. People have freedom to follow their culture and costumes. There is freedom to practice religion. They should follow their culture and let us follow our culture. We do not question them, they should not bother us.
What would you do if the government orders a ban on the hijab?
We will not remove it. Why should we remove it?
What is your message for the college girls who are fighting a battle for their right to wear the hijab?
My message would be, there is no need to fear anyone or anything. We have to march ahead. We should be united together. It is a handful of people who are creating trouble. Inshallah, everything will be alright and we will win.
(Zafar Aafaq is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)