MP: The count, not the veil, worries the head of a school in a Muslim-majority town

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With her head covered with a hijab and her face covered with a mask, Zoya Khan (16) is one of the first to show up at the government senior high school in Nishatpura, a Muslim-majority town in Bhopal. It’s a routine morning for Zoya, unaware of the controversy unfolding in various Karnataka universities after students wearing hijab were banned from attending classes. All that occupies Zoya’s mind is the upcoming board exam. “I want to get a job in a bank and support my parents,” says Zoya.

Sharing the bench with Zoya is Shrishti Shrivastav, who sports a red tikka on her forehead. The tikka is something that Shrishti places in a temple on her way to school every day. As the two wait for her teacher to come in, her friend Sadaf Khan, her head covered in a white hijab, joins them.

“In my house there is no obligation to wear a hijab. But I like to wear it because it gives me a sense of protection as I walk home from school. There are many men who prowl. With my head covered, they don’t seem to notice my presence. Help,” says Zoya.

Like Shrishti, Shrant Prajapati, a class 11 student in the biology stream, has often seen the hijab or burqa as something his classmates wore to protect themselves. “They feel protected and safe with the veil and I don’t see any problem with it. They often walk to school and the men ogle them. If wearing a scarf makes them feel protected, no one should have a problem with that,” says Shrant.

Outside of their classrooms, students roam the courtyard with boys dressed in white shirts and blue pants paired with ties, while girls wear blue tops paired with white pants and white dupattas. Several girls in uniform come with their heads covered in hijabs, while others come in burkas over their uniforms.

The scene is no different outside of her school. Hijab-wearing students from nearby schools can be seen crammed into small electric rickshaws zipping through the narrow streets of Nishatpura. Zoya started wearing a hijab at school from class 8.

Pressuring students to adhere to a strict dress code is the last thing Principal SK Upadhyay would want to do. “Our goal is to teach students and minimize the number of dropouts, regardless of their identity,” he says. “If students wear hijabs or burqas because of their religious leanings, we allow them because they come to school for education. Our girls come wearing hijabs and burkas with uniforms underneath. We allow them to sit in the class wearing the same outfit.”

For Zoya’s friend Sadaf, however, the hijab is not so much a matter of choice. “My parents won’t let me go out if I don’t cover my head with a hijab. It makes you feel protected. But if the school forbids us to wear hijabs, I will go out wearing a hijab and take it off once I am inside the school so my parents don’t know about it,” says Sadaf, the youngest of four siblings.

The challenge for the school has been getting students back into classrooms after the pandemic-induced disruption. Despite the government allowing schools to reopen at 50 percent capacity, attendance is poor, like many other schools in Madhya Pradesh’s capital. Low attendance and the possibility of a high dropout rate begin to worry the principal.
“Many students, especially those in upper secondary classes, took menial jobs earning Rs 2,000-5,000 during the pandemic to contribute to their families’ income. Fewer than 20 percent of students have returned to classes. Now my concern is that all my students return to their classes,” says Upadhyay.

According to Upadhyaya, the school caters to lower-middle-class children, with about 40 percent of its 600-odd students from the Muslim community.

Upadhyay says that discouraging hijabs and burqas could lead to many students dropping out of school. Some of them might even avoid the hijab, but they still wouldn’t feel comfortable and couldn’t concentrate on their studies, he says. “Our main goal is to educate and encourage children to study,” he adds.

And Shrishti Shrivastava, the student from Class 9 echoes her headmistress: “There has never been any restriction in our school on wearing the hijab or the burqa. All we’re told is to make sure it’s white, to match the uniform. Students should be allowed to wear whatever is comfortable for them,” she says.

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