The Hijab row has embroiled karnataka in an unnecessary controversy that is not only taking its toll on the education of women students but is bordering on taking away their constitutional right to education. Criticism has been coming from the beginning in how the state has remained a mute spectator of the controversy and in many ways an active participant in encouraging harassment of the girls wearing hijab through ruling party sponsored hooligans or paid media houses.

Recently child rights and education activists have come forwards and expressed concern over targeting And exclusion of Hijab Wearing Muslim Women Students.

Violation of Constitutional Rights

The Right activists have expressed deep concern and anguish over the active prevention of Muslim women from attending  government schools and colleges, on the grounds that they wear the Hijab, a headscarf. This move, with the tacit and explicit support of the education administration and the government, has been criticized on grounds of violation of fundamental rights of these women, including those of freedom (Article 19, 25) and equality (Article 14). While these criticisms are valid, in this statement we would like to call attention to the violation of their right to education.

Activists have highlighted  that the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE) covers children  between the ages of six and fourteen. The National Education Policy 2020 effectively extends the  state responsibility to educate all children between the ages of three and eighteen. Every child has a  fundamental right to attend school/college and denying a child education, for any reason, is a  violation of the RTE. It is the responsibility of the government to protect this right, and the  responsibility of the High Court, to punish any violation. It is imperative that both institutions fulfill their constitutional responsibilities towards children.

Bigotry in the Garb of ‘Uniformity’

Some people have argued that ‘uniformity’ is required in institutions to preserve the learning  environment. Diversity and exposure to cultures other than our own is essential for broadening our  student’s thinking, for developing respect for others, and for building a harmonious society.  Individuals, specially our youth, must be encouraged to express themselves in a variety of ways, including through their dress and clothing. Such exposure permits learning about and learning from  the ‘other’, and can be developed into respect for one another. When many government educational  institutions have overt displays of Hindu religious symbols and prayers, selectively banning the  dress/clothing of one community, and enforcing a homogeneous, majoritarian culture is bigotry. By wearing a Hijab over their uniform, Muslim women are adhering to the dress code as much as those who wear turbans, bindis/kumkum/tilak and bangles along with the uniform.

A primary purpose of education is the building of learner agency – the ability to think for oneself  and act according to one’s beliefs and conscience. Critical thinking and scientific temper are  increasingly vital in our society characterized by ‘brainwashing’ through mass media and social  media, these can be built in schools and colleges only by encouraging learners to express, debate,  deliberate and even disagree; this is an essential part of building their own identity.

Educate to Develop Dissent, Expression and Creativity not Herd Mentality

Another essential purpose of education is to develop individuals who care. This means school  must provide young people a nurturing environment, for them to experience and value tolerance,  empathy, care, and compassion. Calling out students, punishing, and humiliating them will cause trauma and long term damage. It will tell them that power can be used to impose injustice, and that  compassion is weak and unnecessary. We can imagine what kind of society this will lead us to.

Today, education needs to help us move away from herd mentality and mob brutality. It needs to  help make room for creativity, collaboration, and expression. Dissent is essential to democracy.  Cruelties invariably arise from a system of obedience and regimentation, harming both individual  development and social justice. Schools/colleges must support young women to make their own  decisions regarding their dress and clothing. Paternalism is harmful and violative of fundamental  rights of women.

The RTE requires that the School Management Committee (SMC) be given the authority and  responsibility to be the agency for school development. The RTE is clear that the Chairperson of the SMC, can only be a parent whose child studies in the institution. In Karnataka, Courts have decided that the local MLA cannot subvert this principle and take over the chair of the SMC. In the case of  the Government College in Udupi, the local MLA is the Chairperson of the College Development  Committee which imposed the ban, this is a violation of this principle. In any case, SMCs or  colleges cannot be allowed to impose restrictions which violate fundamental rights of students or  teachers, or are specifically against members of a community.

Education Emergency

Education of girls and of minorities is an accepted national priority, as both have historically lagged behind in accessing education. Preventing girls of a minority community from attending  college, doubly harms our nation.

This violation of the children’s Right to Education, distressing by itself, comes just after schools  and colleges have re-opened, after nearly 2 years of closure due to the pandemic. The loss to  students due to school closure is an Education Emergency, unprecedented in the history of  independent India. Malnutrition, child labor, early marriages, and domestic violence have increased  sharply. Most children have suffered learning and socio-emotional deprivation. When the  educational status of students is already under severe harm, aggravating this, by raising issues that  prevent their attending school/college, is simply unacceptable.

Activists have urged the Government of Karnataka to:

1. Remove restrictions on clothing and dressing, which are the personal choices of students 2. Encourage students to attend schools and colleges – the education emergency is going to cause a  huge dropout of students, which needs a people’s movement to reverse

3. Focus energies on addressing the Education Emergency

– National Coalition on the Education Emergency (NCEE)

The NCEE is a group of individuals, organizations and networks across the country which have  come together to ‘resume and renew’ school education. The NCEE working groups produce  research studies, curricular resources, guidelines for school opening to support governments,  teachers, parents and communities to address the Education Emergency.

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February 2024


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