Social media hails Muskan Khan, a Muslim student, for confronting members of a far-right group outside a college in southern Karnataka state, as protests widen in the country over a ban on Islamic headgear.
A Muslim woman wearing a hijab in southern India's Karnataka state has been hailed for braving threats and heckling by a Hindu far-right mob outside a college, as protests intensified over a ban on Islamic headgear in the educational institutes that has outraged Muslim students in the South Asian country.
In a video posted online by campaigners on Tuesday, Muskan Khan is seen parking her two-wheeler outside a college in the city of Mandya before she is heckled by Hindu members of a right-wing group with "Jai Sri Ram" (Hail Lord Ram) chants.
The girl reacts by raising her hand and shouting back: "Allahu Akbar" (Allah is Great).
Khan, who stood up to a mob of saffron scarf-clad men, later told NDTV –– a local TV channel –– she "was not worried about facing them alone and that she would keep fighting for her right to wear the hijab."
"I have always worn the hijab in college," she said, adding the school never had issues with her clothes and it's "the outsiders" who have stirred the controversy in the province ruled by PM Narendra Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP).
Support grows for Muslim girl
Immediately after the video went viral, Khan was called "lioness", "hero", "brave", and "courageous" on social media.
"How brave these men are and how macho they must feel while targeting a lone young lady! Hatred for Muslims has been completely mainstreamed and normalised in India today," said ex-chief minister of India-administered Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, while commenting on the video in a tweet.
Bollywood actor Richa Chadha slammed the mob and tweeted in support of the woman.
"Raise your sons better! A bunch of ugly, cowards attacking a lone woman in a pack and feeling proud of it? WHAT LOSERS! Shameful. They'll be jobless, more frustrated and penniless in a few years. What poor upbringing! No sympathy, no redemption for them. I spit on your kind (sic)," she wrote.
Aakar Patel, who is the Chair for Amnesty International India, wrote on Twitter, "Shekhar and I have written a thousand columns each none of which amounted to or achieved what that woman did today," referring to Shekhar Gupta, founder of news website The Print, whose editorial over the hijab ban drew widespread flak.
Global rights champion Malala Yousafzai called the hijab ban for students "horrifying", adding, "Objectification of women persists – for wearing less or more. Indian leaders must stop the marginalisation of Muslim women."
The young Muslim woman in the video circulated by @zoo_bear wore a hijab, yes, but to me, as a woman, what is relevant to the current debate is that she came to college driving her own two-wheeler, independently, and with her head held high. There was no sign of regression there https://t.co/avXEPY4WnA— Nirupama Menon Rao ???? (@NMenonRao) February 8, 2022
Schools shut over possible violence
Meanwhile, authorities in the state shut schools on Tuesday.
The stand-off in Karnataka state has galvanised fears among the minority community about what they say is increasing persecution under the Hindu nationalist government of PM Modi.
Fresh demonstrations on Tuesday saw officers fire tear gas to disperse a crowd at one government-run campus, while a heavy police presence was seen at schools in nearby towns.
Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai appealed for calm after announcing all high schools in the state would be closed for three days.
Students at a government-run high school were told not to wear hijabs last month, an edict that soon spread to other educational institutions in the state.
"All of a sudden they are saying you are not supposed to wear hijab... why did they start now?" said Ayesha, a teenage student at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College in the coastal city of Udupi.
Ayesha said a teacher had turned her away from her chemistry exam for wearing the garment.
"We are not against any religion. We are not protesting against anyone. It is just for our own rights," she told AFP news agency.
Fellow student Amrut, standing nearby among a crowd of Hindu boys wearing saffron shawls, said the dispute had unfairly prevented him from attending class.
"We had... requested them not to wear hijab," he said. "But today they are wearing hijab. They are not allowing us to go inside."
When anti-semitism in Germany targeted Jews wearing skull caps, kippa, the German government asked everyone in the country to wear kippa. The problem in India is when the Dear Leader goes to a fancy dress competition every day, he refuses to wear a Muslim's skull cap, taqiyah— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) February 8, 2022
"What we are witnessing is a form of religious apartheid. The decree is discriminatory and it disproportionately affects Muslim women," said A H Almas, an 18-year-old student who has been part of the weeks-long protests.
Critics say Modi's election in 2014 emboldened hardline groups who see India as a Hindu nation and are seeking to undermine its secular foundations at the expense of its 200 million-strong minority and 14 percent Muslim community.
Opposition parties and critics accuse the BJP government at the federal and state level of discriminating against religious minorities and running the risk of stoking violence.
Modi has defended his record and says his economic and social policies benefit all Indians.
A case filed by one of the students, who said in her petition that wearing the hijab was a fundamental right to religion guaranteed by the constitution, was heard in the Karnataka High Court in state capital Bengaluru on Tuesday.
While no final order was passed, the judge appealed for peace and calm and will continue hearing the petition on Wednesday, one of the lawyers for the petitioner told Reuters news agency.
Hardly there is anyone who was not aware of this girl, heckled cowardly in a government college of karnataka for being in hijab. Now she is everywhere, in the minds, in the hearts, in the streets, in the homes, in the markets, in the malls, in the news, in the shares, pic.twitter.com/yPEURapO4u— Muddasir Ahmed ???? (@muddasirmiyan) February 8, 2022
Neither banned nor curbed
For many Muslim women, the hijab is part of their Islamic faith. It has for decades been a source of controversy in some Western countries, particularly in France, which in 2004 banned it from being worn in public schools.
But in India, where Muslims make up almost 14 percent of the country's near 1.4 billion people, it is neither banned nor is it restricted in public places.
In fact, women wearing hijab are a common sight in India, and for many of them, it symbolises religious identity and is a matter of personal choice.
Because the debate involves alleged bias over a religious item worn to cover hair and maintain modesty, some rights activists have voiced concerns that the decree risks raising anti-Muslim hate.
Violence and hate speech against Muslims have increased under Modi's nationalist party.
The protests have drawn public condemnation, with the hashtag #HijabIsOurRight circulating widely on social media, but also led to a rather unexpected pushback.
For the last week, some Hindu students in the state have started wearing Saffron-colored shawls, a symbol of Hindu nationalist groups.
They have also chanted praises to Hindu gods, while protesting against the Muslim girls' choice of headgear, signifying India's growing religious faultlines and bitter tensions between the country's Hindu majority and its Muslim minority.
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