MP: The workforce, not the headscarf, worries the school principal in a predominantly Muslim locality

Head covered with a hijab and masked face, Zoya Khan (16) is among the first to attend the government high school in Nishatpura, a predominantly Muslim locality, in Bhopal. It’s a routine morning for Zoya, ignoring the controversy taking place in several colleges in Karnataka after students wearing the hijab were banned from classes. All that’s on Zoya’s mind is the upcoming jury exam. “I want to work in a bank and help 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 rides from a temple on the way to school every day. While they both wait for their teacher to arrive, their friend Sadaf Khan, her head covered in a white hijab, joins them.

“At home, there is no obligation to wear a hijab. But I like wearing it because it gives me a sense of protection when walking from home to school. There are a lot of men strolling around. With my head covered, they don’t seem to notice me. It helps,” Zoya says.

Much like Shrishti, Shrant Prajapati, a class 11 student in the biology major, often viewed the hijab or burqa as something his classmates wore for protection. “They feel protected and safe wearing a headscarf and I don’t see any problem with that. They often walk to school and men stare at them. If wearing a headscarf makes them feel protected, no one shouldn’t be a problem,” says Shrant.

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

The scene is no different outside of their school. Hijab-wearing students from nearby schools can be seen crammed into tiny electric rickshaws weaving through the narrow lanes of Nishatpura. Zoya started wearing a hijab in school from class 8.

Pushing students to a strict dress code is the last thing Principal SK Upadhyay would want to do. “Our goal is to educate students and minimize the number of dropouts, regardless of who they are,” he says. “If the students wear the hijab or the burqa because of their religious leanings, we allow them because they come to school to learn. Our girls come wearing hijabs as well as burkas with uniforms underneath. We allow them to sit in the classroom in the same attire.

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

The challenge for the school has been getting students back into classrooms after the pandemic-induced disruption. Although the government is allowing schools to reopen at 50% capacity, attendance is low, much like many other schools in Madhya Pradesh’s capital. The low attendance and the possibility of a high dropout rate are beginning to worry the principal.
“Many students, especially those in upper secondary grades, have worked in menial jobs earning between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000 during the pandemic to contribute to their family’s income. Less than 20% of students have returned to class. Now my concern is to get all my students back to their classes,” Upadhyay explains.

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

Upadhyay says discouraging hijabs and burqas could lead many students to drop out. Some of them might even avoid the hijab but would still be uncomfortable and unable to concentrate on their studies, he says. “Our main goal is to provide education and encourage children to study,” he adds.

And Shrishti Shrivastava, the pupil of class 9, echoes his director: “There has never been a restriction in our school on the wearing of the hijab or the burqa. All we’re told is to make sure it’s white in color, to go with the uniform. Students should be allowed to wear whatever they feel comfortable in,” she says.

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