Dress code that does disservice to education

The “row” in Karnataka over wearing the hijab or head scarf by some Muslim girl students which began at a college in Udupi district is a whipped-up controversy that need not be. Most colleges do not usually have a dress code except rules against skimpy wear, and many Muslim girls have been going to college with their heads covered. To suddenly stop them from entering institutions that they should consider their own, having enrolled and begun their college life there, is unwarranted and detrimental not only to the students in question but also the State and its goal to educate more girl children, treat them with respect and enable them find their place in a complex and changing world.

The hijab becomes a tool to stand up and rebel against a dictatorial system that does not respect the individual’s right to dress

The sudden decision to lock gates on these students harms congenial relations on campus, force-creates a religious divide and sends exactly the wrong message to the other students, who are all at an impressionable age and may well begin to buy into narrower approaches rather than an appreciation and celebration of the ethos of democracy, plurality and diversity – the bedrock on which education curricula ought to be built. This is exactly what has happened with the throwback coming from those who want to wear saffron scarfs and shawls, an ugly manifestation of communalism in a place where minds should open, love can blossom and friends are created for life. It diminishes for the entire college eco system the important task of chiseling and sending out “women of substance, personality, mettle, caliber, confidence and reputation” – to quote the high aspirations listed by the Maharani's Arts, Commerce and Management College for Women in Bengaluru. These should be the watchwords for all institutions.

The sudden decision to lock gates on these students harms congenial relations on campus, force-creates a religious divide and sends exactly the wrong message to the other students, who are all at an impressionable age and may well begin to buy into narrower approaches rather than an appreciation and celebration of the ethos of democracy, plurality and diversity – the bedrock on which education curricula ought to be built

Instead of stretching to make it easy for more girls, particularly from minority communities, to stay enrolled in college and go on to become graduates in an India that should and seeks to offer more opportunities to girls, what is doing the rounds is the exact opposite. Videos on social media show girl students stalled at the gate, arguing with the college authorities, pleading to be let in while the college principal and others look on unfazed. This cannot be a good picture of Karnataka, the State that has led India’s IT boom, has a strong eco system for entrepreneurship and is known for an ethos that has made its capital city Bengaluru the magnet of a diverse set of young Indians, who work hard and party harder in the many pubs, bars and discos that have mushroomed in the State’s capital city Bengaluru

This is a case that may well be decided by the courts but the clarifications obtained in judicial orders can do little to repair a deep damage that is being caused to students enrolled now and in the midst of catching up after the disruptions caused by the pandemic. It tells us that colleges that are meant to be beacons of leadership and must guide society have themselves fallen victim to an agenda that is about anything but learning and growth.

Instead of stretching to make it easy for more girls, particularly from minority communities, to stay enrolled in college and go on to become graduates in an India that should and seeks to offer more opportunities to girls, what is doing the rounds is the exact opposite

Contrast what is happening in Karnataka with the case of the Sophia College for Women in South Mumbai, where this writer has taught final year students studying journalism, many of whom are now working journalists and have made their mark in their own way. Sophia College is the place of choice for a lot of girls from Muslim-dominated areas of South Mumbai, and in fact opens opportunities for young women to break free and experience college life in all its facets, including being on a campus that is famous because many Bollywood movies have been shot there.   

Consider that many of these young girls might not have been sent to college if it was not for institutions like this being only for women. Also consider that many of the Muslim students used to then come covered in a black robe, following what was either required or regarded as customary in the families and the areas that they came from. The College had several coat hangers in the foyers and the hallways. Girls would quickly discard the hijab on these and get about their studies, mixing seamlessly with the rest of the class.  The College further spoke with parents and students to highlight issues and concerns so that girls continued to stay enrolled and graduated in the face of common family pressures for marriage.

The education system must encourage students to ask, question, challenge and stand up

Despite these efforts by the South Mumbai college for women, in a city considered the financial capital of India, many girls would drop out. Some years ago, the then college principal Dr. Anila Verghese spoke at a meeting convened by the State minorities department to make the point that the dropout rate among Muslim girls was alarming at her college. There is clearly a lot of work remaining to be done in the area of higher education for the girl child. Karnataka as a State has told the nation that they appear not particularly concerned about this, and in that sense, have in effect offered a writing down of a key ingredient of development – the education of girls.

It is alarming to hear the Karnataka education minister BC Nagesh compare rules in a military institution to the way a college ought to function. The military is an institution driven by high ideals but they are anchored in the idea of compliance to authority and discipline. They must execute, often with no questions asked. Hierarchy is important. The education system on the other hand must encourage students to ask, question, challenge and stand up. The minister is also wrong in presuming that the hijab is a sign of oppression or fundamentalism. 

It is alarming to hear the Karnataka education minister BC Nagesh compare rules in a military institution to the way a college ought to function

Attitudes towards wearing the hijab will have to be studied more closely. Given what is happening in Karnataka, the hijab becomes a tool to stand up and rebel against a dictatorial system that does not respect the individual’s right to dress. Girls who can and might wish to discard the hijab may well choose to wear it with a vengeance. The hijab can go on to become a symbol of protest against an overbearing, dictatorial and unfair education order. It moves from becoming a dress to a political statement.

In all this, the time and opportunity to learn and grow are lost. The girls at the centre of the protest have lost in the near term but their classmates have also lost and the longer-term loser is the State of Karnataka and India as a plural society and nation.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)

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