The video of a young burqa-clad woman confronting a crowd of men jeering at her inside a college campus in Karnataka’s Mandya has created a storm on the internet. PES College student Muskan, the woman in question, has emerged as a symbol of female resistance to saffron bigotry and strongarming currently on display around educational institutions in the state, as the hijab row escalates.
For standing her ground in the face of an intimidating pack of bullies, and responding to their religious chants with her own, the woman was hailed as a ‘sherni‘ (lioness) on Twitter by supporters. A powerful sketch of her, dressed in all-black from head to toe with her arm raised in protest among a sea of saffron, is also doing rounds.
Most women are all too familiar with the dreadful fear that overpowers us when even a single man heckles or catcalls us on the streets. It must have been an unimaginable nightmare, then, for a lone woman to be harassed by a whole group of rowdies. That alone should arouse outrage. That Muskan had the courage to not only respond to the men, but assert her identity while doing so, speaks of empowerment.
Girl in burqa heckled: education shouldn’t be a fight
In all the ensuing communal dialogue, however, an important question – perhaps the most essential one – is going ignored.
Should a girl have to exhibit bravado in wanting to continue her education safely? In an independent country, must a girl be driven to fight and resist in demanding the right to study with dignity?
Suggested Reading: Communal Faceoff: Is Karnataka Hijab Row Normalising Street Harassment Of Girls?
It speaks as much about the state of our society as it does about a woman’s fortitude when the conditions are such that a student is being targeted for seeking what the constitution fundamentally offers her. The right to education, the right to dress, the right to practice religion, the right to safety.
These are not privileges any girl, or any student, has to earn. So should she have to expose herself to any hostility to prove her ‘merit’ to obtain them?
“Before me, a few other Muslim girls were also heckled in a similar manner. The college administration and the principal never prevented us from wearing the burqa, so why should I listen to outsiders? I was really frustrated with the way the protesters were behaving and decided to counter them,” Muskan told Indian Express.
Suggested Reading: Separate Classes For Students In Hijab: When Communalism Puts Education At Stake
The events surrounding the hijab row are digressing from the focal point of the matter- which is girls’ education. Noise on social media and in newsroom studios have shifted to whether or not the hijab disempowers a woman. As usual, the communally charged discussion is conveniently missing taking into account the most important factor, that is a woman’s agency to choose.
This forms part of a larger debate vis-a-vis women empowerment and modesty but the issue at hand in Karnataka is not about this. It is about the travesty of obstructing a bunch of girls from pursuing education because they subscribe to a particular faith and are expressing this identity through their dress.
The Right to Education Act was introduced in the country in 2009, mandating free and compulsory education for all children under Article 21 A of the Constitution. And yet, girl child education is a cause for protest even today.
A worrying 40 percent of adolescent girls in India, in the age group of 15-18, are not attending school, according to a 2020 report by the Right to Education Forum and Centre for Budget Policy Studies. The Muslim religious minority also reportedly has one of the lowest literacy rates in the country, even worse than Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe groups.
Against this alarming data, authorities need to urgently measure the unspeakable setback India will face if trends of bullying girls away from classrooms will continue in the manner that it is in Karnataka.
Views expressed are the author’s own.