ABVP waves saffron shawls at burkhas on campuses
Muslim women wear the dress to be able to attend college in Karnataka, but Hindutva activists see it as a violation of the existing codeA saffron shawl is not part of the prescribed uniform at the Government First Grade College in the coastal town of Bhatkal in Karnataka. But Jayant Naika, a second year undergraduate student of Arts, was assaulted earlier this month by four of his college mates for not wearing one.
The incident marked an aggressive turn in the burkha-versus-saffron shawl battle over dress codes reported from colleges in Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada and Shivamogga districts.
These districts made news for communal skirmishes, vigilante attacks and moral policing.
The saffron shawl appeared in colleges after right wing groups objected to Muslim women being allowed to wear a head scarf or burkha in college. Students (many affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) decided to wear saffron shawls in protest.
Rule cannot changeThe saffron group argues that one section of students cannot be allowed to break the norm on uniforms on the ground that it is a cultural or religious right.
Insisting that there was nothing communal about their stand, Mangaluru taluk unit of ABVP convenor Sujith Shetty said the State government should issue a non-negotiable dress code in schools and colleges.
“I will continue wearing a saffron shawl as long as they wear a head scarf,” said a student at the Government First Grade College, Bellare, Dakshina Kannada, which witnessed a confrontation six months ago.
Even though protests against head scarves or burkha on campuses have been reported since 2009 in Dakshina Kannada, boys wearing saffron shawls as a counter is recent. There have been four major instances since August 2016; in Bhatkal, Jayant Naika’s attackers said he was not wearing a shawl “despite being a Hindu”.
Passport to collegeIn all this, the voice of Muslim women has remained muted. “I wear a burkha because my family will not let me go to college without one. If they ban it, I might have to drop out,” says a student of the Sahyadri Science College in Shivamogga.
A teacher in a government first-grade college in Bhadravati, Shivamogga district, says: “Some of my students are comfortable in burkha and some may not be, but it is part of their negotiation with their families to continue education.”
Most of her students are from poor families and first generation college-goers. They often have to contend with boys of the community who report back to families if a girl is seen without a burkha or speaking to boys of other communities. The saffron shawl protests are “threatening, aggressive and leave no room for negotiation” and can potentially block a girl’s education, the teacher says.
Women helpless“Women are unfortunately caught between fundamentalist groups,” says Sara Aboobacker, senior Kannada writer who has been vocal in her protest against imposition of burkha and hijab on women.
There have been instances where Muslim groups too refuse to engage in a debate and view the burkha as a religious issue.
For instance, in Shivamogga, some girl students, supported by the Campus Front of India, demanded protection from authorities, alleging that their rights were being violated in the name of a dress code.
Professor at Hampi Kannada University and a well-known culture critic Rahmat Tarikere said there are four clear stakeholders — the government, the Muslim community, progressive activists and the Hindu right.
“The government is being badgered for not imposing uniforms, the Muslim community for being conservative and progressive activists for being selectively silent. Clearly, only one group gains politically from this,” says Prof. Tarikere. “The Muslim community would be seen as defeated if it accepts the argument of the Hindu right, but branded regressive if it does not.”
Like Sara Aboobaker, Prof. Tarikere said the victims in all this are students, especially Muslim girls who want education and have to face conservative attitudes.