Delhi: Saniya Kawazi recalled how her teacher shouted at her when she tried to give her final examinations in a hijab, and she recalled the desperation she felt when she was not allowed to.
“The teacher shouted at us saying, ‘either take it off or you can't sit in class,’” Kawazi, a 20-year-old student of history at the JSS Arts, Science and Commerce College in the northern town of Gokak in Karnataka told Article 14, recalling how they pleaded with the school authorities until the final bell rang and the exam started on 25 March 2022.
“It took me 15 years to get here,” she said in a phone conversation last month. “I begged the teacher to let us give the exam.”
Kawazi was disallowed from appearing for her exams 10 days after a three-judge bench of the Karnataka High Court ruled that wearing the hijab was not an essential practice of Islam.
In so doing, the bench of Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna S Dixit and Justice J M Khazi upheld a government order banning it in state-run educational institutions—where a uniform is prescribed.
Karnataka is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has overseen and abetted a corrosive anti-Muslim campaign orchestrated by the right-wing, targeting the minority community’s clothes, food, and livelihood, ahead of the state assembly election in 2023.
The High Court order and the Supreme Court’s reluctance to treat the corresponding appeal as urgent has left Muslim women students, especially those who were not allowed to write exams, deeply anxious and despairing over their degrees that are hanging in the balance, and charting a future course of action.
Students from poor economic backgrounds, attending the state-run pre university (PU) colleges, cannot afford the fees of private colleges. The women students who spoke to Article 14 confessed to being in a state of limbo—too late in the 2021-2022 academic year that started in May 2021 to transfer out of their colleges to one that accommodated the hijab in its uniform.
Hoping against hope for a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court, some are persisting with their studies at home, in libraries, and through online classes organised by their community members, while others hear the first murmurs about marriage from within their families.
For Muslim women students, the choice was not only between education or religion, they said, explaining why banning the hijab in the classroom felt like the first step in phasing them out of society.
“I Collapsed—Mentally, Physically, Emotionally"
“I collapsed—mentally, physically, emotionally," said A*, a 22-year-old student, who has challenged the High Court decision against her petition in the Supreme Court.
Recalling how communal divides on campuses have been growing since February 2022, with Hindu students blocking their numbers and kicking them out of WhatsApp groups, A said, “I am a criminal for wearing a hijab, but all those threatening us are not?”
A said the Supreme Court’s refusal to give the petition an early hearing broke her spirit. “For me, it is urgent. I went to court only because the dates for my exams were approaching then,” she said.
Won’t Be Allowed To Retake Exams: Education Minister
The number of women students who have missed exams in the aftermath of the High Court’s ruling vary as per media reports.
Last month, the Karnataka education minister BC Nagesh said that 400 Muslim women students had skipped school and college in the state on 21 March, and those who had missed their practical exams for the second year PU exams (class 12) in February and March would not be allowed to retake them.
On 27 March, Nagesh said that Muslim students appearing for the class 10 exam would not be allowed to wear a hijab inside classroom even if they came into campus wearing it, irrespective of whether they are from schools where hijab is part of the uniform. Of the 84,000 Muslim students, Nagesh said only 500 to 600 had been making it an issue.
Over 11,000 of 2.4 lakh students were reported absent on the first day of the written exam for class 12 on 22 April, 3,300 more than the number of absentees in 2020, as per The Times of India. No exams were held in 2021 due to Covid-19 pandemic.
The High Court’s ruling, dismissing petitions challenging ban on the hijab, by Muslim women students from the Government PU College for Girls in Udupi, stunned scholars, students, and people calling for freedom and equality of Muslims amid pervasive anti-Muslim radicalisation.
But the government ban on all students from wearing a hijab announced by Nagesh on 27 March—even in those colleges where headscarves were allowed and those where students had no uniform—Article 14 has previously reported—was against the tenets of the High Court judgement that was limited to state-run pre-university and undergraduate colleges where college development committees have prescribed uniforms.
Chief Justice of India N V Ramana on 26 April said that he would list the matter for hearing in two days.
Lawyer Anas Tanwir, who represents student Niba Naaz in her appeal petition, told Article 14 that he hoped the hearing would come before the summer holidays start on 23 May.
Starting To Give Up On Their Dreams
Kawazi, who lost her parents in a car accident when she was nine years old, takes care of her younger brother and sister, and they are provided for by the family of her elder sister who lives nearby in her marital home.
Kawazi said that she could not transfer out of her college so late in this academic year that started in September 2020. A third year bachelor of arts (BA) student, Kawazi did not give any of her eight final exams in April.
Kawazi said that she will be marked absent and she will have no choice but to restart her final year in another college in the academic year 2023.
Even if the Supreme Court overturns Karnataka HC’s judgement, and she and others who missed their exams because of the hijab ban were allowed to retake them, Kawazi said there was a steep price to pay.
“It is Rs 450 per paper,” said Kawazi, calculating the cost of retaking eight exams would be Rs 3,600. “I could pay for a whole semester of college with that.”
The annual fee in government colleges is Rs 10,000 a year. The fee for the same course in Karnataka’s private colleges range between one lakh to four lakhs.
Kawazi told Article 14 that she dreamed of being a lawyer, and that she would try to continue studying to become a lawyer by finding an Islamic college in Belagavi, two hours from Gokak. However, the distance troubled her since she was the main caretaker for her younger brother.
While she does not want to give up on her dream of becoming a lawyer, Kawazi was unsure how she would manage college in another town and her home responsibilities at the same time.
In a second conversation a few weeks later, Kawazi appeared to be giving up on the dream.
She said that she was starting a six month-computer course on 3 May to keep busy. “I have no hope from the SC,” she said.
Kawazi isn’t alone.
Her classmate, 20-year-old Tehseen Imarphwane, pursuing her BA in the same JSS college, was not allowed to give her exam on 25 March.
Thinking about what to do next, Imarphwane said she was daunted by the fees of a private college, running up to several lakhs, given that her father installs internet cables for the living, and she is the youngest of three in a single income household.
Imarphwane has also enrolled in the same six-month computer course as Kawazi in the hope of finding viable employment.
"I hope they (college) will change their mind and we can give our exams this year,” she said.
Online Classes As A Stopgap Measure
Udupi’s Muslim Okkutta (alliance) head and social activist Hussain Kodibengre said that he was advising students to give their exams with or without the hijab.
The two main reasons for this advice was that it was imperative for girls to get educated and to be safe, Kodibengre said. “ There is also danger in terms of other people starting fights or forcing the girls to take off their hijabs.”
After Muslim women students stopped going to college following the government order on 5 February, calling on students to follow the dress code prescribed by the college development committees, Kodibengre said the community started online tutoring in subjects such as maths, economics, history, commerce, statistics for 150 young women who were affected.
“There are people within our group (Muslim Okkutta) who are or have been teachers or are experts in those subjects who volunteer a few hours a week to take classes on zoom (video conferencing),” he said.
Violence And Vigilantism
On 5 February 2022, students wearing saffron scarves raised slogans against hijab-clad women in the Kundapur district of Udupi. On 8 February 2022, section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973
(joining an unlawful assembly) was issued in Shivamogga city's Bapujinagar following a clash between students protesting for and against the hijab.
After the BJP's Karnataka unit on 14 February 2022, tweeted out their personal details, the petitioners before the Karnataka High Court told the bench they received threatening calls and that their companions had been assaulted.
The calls for violence and vigilantism have continued since the High Court decision on 15 March 2022.
On 22 February 2022, Pooja Veerashetty, a woman leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), called for violence against women wearing hijab, saying, “Let the government give us just one hour...not just these six girls in hijab, we'll cut 60,000 in hijab into pieces.”
On the same day, Hazra Shifa, a student from Udupi, alleged that her brother Saif was physically assaulted because she refused to take off her hijab.
On 20 March 2022, a Hindutva YouTube account owner, who covered his face with a saffron scarf, called for rape and genocide of Muslims, including children, lest they "retaliate." In the video, the man questioned why the students wanted to cover their faces.
On 16 April, 2022, violence broke out in the northern town of Hubbali in Karnataka because of a WhatsApp status posted by a 19-year-old Ram Sena member Abhishek Hiremath. The post showed a saffron flag hoisted over a mosque.
The flare-up started when a Muslim crowd pelted stones at the old Hubbali police station to protest insufficient action against Hiremath, who was arrested two days later. So far, the police have arrested 40 people in connection with the violence.
The anti-hijab sentiments manufactured in Karnataka have touched other parts of the country.
On 3 May 2022, three women students were stopped from entering Ginni Devi Modi Girls' Degree College in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh because they were wearing hijabs.
“I Want To Study And Be Productive In Society”
B*, a 19-year old student from the MGM Degree College in Udupi, said that halfway through their academic year, on 8 February 2022, their principal summoned her and another hijab-wearing student, and told them that they could no longer wear a headscarf to college.
"He didn't even give us time to process (what he said)," the 19-year-old, one of the petitioners against the hijab ban, said.
Caught between faith and education, B, who has been wearing the hijab since she was nine years old, said the hijab-wearing students of MGM tried speaking with the college authorities, but no one would listen to them.
On 24 February 2022, in a widely reported incident, the images of which caught the attention of media channels and people across the country, more than 20 girls returned wearing hijabs that matched the colour of their uniform, but they were denied entry at the college gates. The video of the college gate being closed on them went viral.
Even though she is studying commerce in college, B had been contemplating a career in design—interior or website. "I want to study and be productive in society. Is that not enough?" she said.
Talk Of Marriage Amid Police Visits
Not allowed to give first year exams, B remained at home and helped her mother with the Ramzan preparations.
In addition to the bleak prospects on the education front, the fraught times, the attention that came with speaking up, and the prevailing sense of fear, were driving her family to think about her marriage, B said.
Sounding anxious and dismayed, she said that her family members and relatives had started broaching the topic of her marriage in recent weeks.
“If I was in college right now, no one would even suggest marriage for me,” she said.
B said that even though the local police have visited her several times, inquiring about her safety, the only reason she feels safe is because she has stopped going out or speaking with anyone.
B’s father, who works at a general store, kept asking that his daughter’s name not be published, fearing "retaliation for speaking to the media."
While she continues to fight against the ban in the Supreme Court, B said she plans to look for work because she does not want to be a financial burden on her family, and she is ready to work as a house maid if it gives her some income and delays marriage.
“I am not sure who will hire a non-graduate, but where’s my choice?” she said.
‘People Called Us Terrorists’
Hiba Sheik, a 19-year-old who is pursuing her second year of bachelor of science degree in zoology from P. Satisha Pai Government First Grade College in Bondel in Mangaluru, said that she was waiting for her exam to begin on 3 March 2022, when male students wearing saffron shawls came into the room and shouted at her for wearing a hijab.
Even though the college principal had allowed her to wear the hijab, Sheik said the students in saffron held up the exam until the invigilator sent her and other hijab-wearing students to the principal's office.
Sheik said she saw men in saffron shawls browbeating the principal into sending the hijab-wearing women home. The principal, she alleged, reneged his permission to the hijab-wearing students to give their exams. Sheik said she and the other students agreed to go home that day to avoid escalating the situation.
When they returned to college the next day to sit for the next exam on 4 March, the harassment intensified, Sheik said.
A fellow student and member of the ABVP harassed her, she alleged, saying, “He started arguing and pushed me and harassed me and abused me while the police personnel stood nearby and did nothing.”
“Instead of helping me, they were scuttling the other ABVP students into campus," she said. “People called us terrorists and refused to let us even eat or drink water in the canteen.”
Sheik said that she filed a police complaint against the ABVP member on the same day. A first information report (FIR) was registered against 15 members of the ABVP for causing tension on campus section 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and section 501 (printing or engraving material known to be defamatory) of the Indian Penal Code, 1870.
Two days later, a student associated with the ABVP, Kavana Shetty, complained against Sheik for harassing members of the right-wing student organisation. An FIR was registered against Sheik and six others for causing tension on campus under the same sections.
Dreams Of Cracking The UPSC
Sheik’s father Ayub Khan is currently unemployed, her mother Asha Ayub is an ASHA worker, and her elder sister provides for the family of five on the salary of a data entry operator. Sheik said they could barely afford the Rs 10,000 monthly fee for her college education.
Two days before her exams were to start, Sheik received a WhatsApp message—a forwarded message—from her class teacher. It was the principal’s notice to teachers that said they should not let women students in hijab on campus. Still, Sheik went to get her hall ticket but she was not allowed into campus.
Sheik is still nurturing her childhood dream of cracking the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) and joining the Indian police service (IPS).
Since being turned away from her college for wearing a hijab, Sheik said she does not go out of the house except to visit the Mandeshwar library near her house in Mangalore, where she spends her day going through old civil service exam papers and textbooks.
“I started studying for the UPSC exams by reading through the books from the 7th standard,” she told Article 14.
Sheik knows there will be no UPSC exam in her future if she cannot earn a college degree, but she continues studying, hopeful of a fair judgement from the Supreme Court, and unwilling to lose any time preparing for one of the toughest exams in the country.
“I pray and hope that the Supreme Court verdict will be in our favour,” she said.
(A and B spoke on the condition that Article 14 not publish their names).
(Avantika Mehta is a Delhi-based journalist. She covers law, crime, gender and human rights violations for several national and international publications.)