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India: Burqa row in school

A 15-year-old schoolgirl has become the public face of a radical group's campaign for an "Islamic" dress code in a controversy similar to the one sparked by the recent French ban on headscarves in classrooms.
The row started after Shabnam, a ninth standard student of a co-ed government higher secondary school, arrived in a burqa but was turned back by the teachers.

She returned the next day, the "net curtain" in place that allowed her to see but prevented others from seeing her eyes. She was not alone - one of her classmates, too, was in a burqa.

Realising that the row could soon take a political turn in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, principal Pushpalata Chowdhury shot off a letter to district authorities seeking guidelines on "violation" of the school dress code. She also called parents requesting them to give up the "burqa campaign". Chowdhury said burqas could pose a threat as miscreants could use it as disguise to sneak into the school.

Soon the word was out that Muslim girls were being prevented from fulfilling their religious obligations. Local muftis, maulvis and religious outfits joined in. The radical Anjuman Islamia Committee took charge, asking the authorities of the Garg Colony school on the bank of the Machna to "see reason".

Mohammad Islamil of the Anjuman told the authorities that Islam impresses upon women to "lower their gaze and guard their modesty" and hijab was definitely established as obligatory dress code in the Shariat.

Privately, however, not many Muslims here favour the Anjuman's "back to basics" approach. Abdul Rahim, whose daughter is among 56 girls supporting the burqa campaign, said almost in a whisper that while he acknowledged that Islam outlined a code of modesty, it did not commend a certain style.

Asked why he was not protesting, Rahim said as the father of two girls, he did not want to become an "outcast". Some others said it was important to note that Islamic values of modesty applied to both men and women.

For the time being, district authorities are trying to settle the issue at the local level. District education officer S.S. Thakur said he was "applying his mind" and has asked for guidelines from the capital, Bhopal. "Prima facie, it appears to be a case of a violation of dress code," he said.

Not many in Betul, which is about 200 km from Bhopal, have heard about the controversy in France that erupted in the wake of an amendment in the code of education banning students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols to state schools.

The ban also covers Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, to ensure that secular rules are applied evenly. The ban does not apply in Catholic and other private schools.

By Rasheed Kidwai, originally published in The Telegraph, October 13, 2004