It’s barely afternoon in her hometown Mandya, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, but Muskan Khan is exhausted. The 19-year-old has a lot to accomplish in a day: study for upcoming exams, take care of her ill brother, and manage hundreds of phone calls from journalists across the world.
She has become India’s most well-known Muslim student.
“I had no idea my life would change overnight,” the teenager, who studies in Mandya’s PES College of Engineering, told VICE World News.
On Tuesday, a video of her boldly responding to a group of heckling Hindu extremists outside her college went viral. The men with scarves of saffron – a colour associated with Hindu nationalism – ran towards the burqa-clad student and started shouting, “Jai Shri Ram,” a popular war cry chanted by Hindu supremacist mobs that translates to “long live Lord Ram.”
But Muskan, with no trace of fear in her eyes and no idea she was being videoed repeatedly shouted back, “Allahu Akbar,” the Arabic phrase that is also an Islamic war cry and translates to “God is great.” She kept shouting it until she was escorted inside her college.
By the time Muskan got home, the internet had already made her the face of a resistance that’s been brewing over the last month and is led by young Muslim women across her state. The hashtag #Muskan became an alias for the movement.
“I had no idea my life would change overnight.”
It’s been a month since government-run colleges in Karnataka started imposing a hijab ban under the guise of a uniform dress code. At least 10 colleges have reportedly banned entry of hijab-wearing Muslim students inside classrooms. But over the last three weeks, Muslim students mobilised to demand their right to study while wearing articles of their faith.
In retaliation, mobs have been gathering outside colleges to target Muslim students like Khan, even leading to violent stone pelting and hoisting of the saffron flag – a symbol of Hindu supremacy.
Muskan said that neither the Hindu mob nor the backlash from the viral video scares her. “I took Allah’s name that day because whenever something happens, we take God’s name,” she said. “That moment, when I took Allah’s name loudly, he gave me so much strength that the whole world heard.”
“That moment, when I took Allah’s name loudly, he gave me so much strength that the whole world heard.”
After Muskan went viral, the state’s chief minister Basavaraj S Bommai quickly shut down all high schools and colleges. And a ban on public gathering – popularly known as Section 144 – within a 200-metre radius of schools and colleges has been imposed until February 22.
Although unfazed, Muskan said that her parents are worried about her physical safety, but are also supporting her. Hussain Khan, Muskan’s father, told VICE World News that they won’t silently accept the ban.
“I’m proud of my daughter,” said Khan, who owns a gym in Mandya. “She’s inspired us all.”
In Hindu-majority India, it is common for Muslims, who make up 14.2 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population, to wear articles of their faith. Across the world, the hijab has been a subject of controversy, such as in France, where a ban on hijab has been triggering controversies – most recently when the ban reached into sports – or in Sri Lanka, where a hijab ban proposal has triggered fears of further Muslim persecution.
But the sheer size of India’s Muslim population – over 200 million – makes the impact of the ban all the more pronounced. India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population, outranked only by Muslim-majority countries Indonesia and Pakistan.
The Karnataka government is run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and their beef with the hijab falls in line with their growing policies that disenfranchise Muslims, fuel Islamophobia, and encourage extremists to harm them.
The sheer size of India’s Muslim population – over 200 million – makes the impact of the ban all the more pronounced.
Karnataka’s religious tensions go back decades. Local media often report on “endless cycles of violence” against Muslims, who get attacked for doing business, hanging out or being in a relationship with Hindu women, or simply taking public transport.
A similar uniform dress code in a state college in 2012 triggered controversy after the rule banned the hijab, burqa and headscarf – typical clothing items for Muslim women – but allowed the tilak, bindis and bangles – all articles of the Hindu faith.
Students enter their college in Karnataka's Hindu-majority Udupi district, which has been rocked by protests. While students can wear hijab in college premises, they're not allowed to wear them inside classrooms. Photo by Dinesh Rayappana Matt / AFP via Getty Images
Last week, the state government issued a directive stating that “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn.” The ban on hijab, they added, is not a violation of fundamental right to religious freedom.
The morning Muskan went viral, her brother was running a fever, so she tended him first and then rushed to college on her scooty. She was stopped outside her college gate by the “saffron men.”
“I didn’t know those boys would be there,” she said. “But when I reached [my college], I was stopped outside the gate and those men asked me to remove my burqa right there. ‘Nikal burqa (remove your burqa),’ they told me very rudely. That got me seething with anger.”
Somehow, Muskan circumvented them and drove past into the college. There, she saw more men. “As I got off my scooty and walked towards my class, those men were looking at me and trying to scare me,” she said. She wanted to go in quietly. “I wanted to not say anything, maybe just glare at them, but just walk away. But they were literally in my face! When they brandished their saffron scarves at me and yelled ‘Jai Shri Ram’, I decided to raise my voice.”
Nothing has been the same for her, or the movement opposing the ban, since.
On paper, the Indian Constitution grants freedom to practice and promote any religion peacefully. Yet Indian history is rife with religious disharmony, even more so under the leadership of Modi and the BJP government. Since Modi came to power in 2014, human rights watchdogs have flagged government policies and laws that have only deepened the religious divide, muzzled those who resist, and rewarded individuals and groups who target religious minorities.
Over the last year, previously fringe Hindu supremacists have taken their hate speech mainstream, some of which escalated to open calls for genocide of Muslims, while Muslim women have been facing constant doxxing and sexual harassment online.
Activist Zakia Soman, the co-founder of the activism collective Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, called the dress code rule “draconian and discriminatory.”
“What started as a matter of discipline in educational institutions has now exploded into a Hindu-Muslim conflict,” she told VICE World News. Soman is one of the hundreds of activists supporting the Muslim students.
“What started as a matter of discipline in educational institutions has now exploded into a Hindu-Muslim conflict.”
“Various political and religious groups have jumped into the fray. This singling out of Muslim women in hijab is outright discrimination, especially because those who’re doing so are known for wearing their own religion in public life,” added Soman, noting the double standards favouring Hindus. Last month, the state’s chief minister broke COVID-19 restrictions to take part in Hindu rituals with his family.
Early this week, Karnataka’s education minister and BJP politician BC Nagesh said in a statement that students are being “instigated” to protest, adding that it was “miscreants” who turned the dress code into an issue of religion. “According to the Karnataka Education Act, Rule number 11, no student can come inside school without uniforms,” his statement said.
Ironically, as Muslim women were being targeted in Karnataka this week, Modi gave a speech during an election rally in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, saying, “Our government stands with Muslim women.”
He could not have been referring to the women in Karnataka.
A protest in Bangalore, Karnataka's capital city, for the Muslim students facing a hijab ban in colleges. Asaduddin Owaisi, a leading Muslim politician in India tweeted in their support, "The young Muslim women students in Karnataka have demonstrated great courage under extreme provocation from Hindutva mobs. Their conduct in pursuit of their constitutional rights has been exemplary. The State has been complicit in this evil behaviour." Photo: MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
In the meantime, personal data of the protesting young women was reportedly leaked. Muskan’s virality drew a lot of hate toward her, too. The education minister Nagesh told the media that Muskan didn’t have to “provoke” the heckling mob.
Online, Muskan and other Muslim women are being maligned. Hindu supremacists are tweeting with hashtags #HijabNahiKitaabDo, which is Hindi for “No hijab, give them a book instead”, implying that getting rid of the hijab will save Muslim women. The trolling has reached the young women’s phones as well. VICE World News reached out to four otherwise outspoken women, who have now switched off their phones because of the trolling.
“There are efforts to show that these young Muslim women otherwise don’t wear the hijab, but are doing this all as part of a pre-planned agenda with a higher force behind it,” said Pratik Sinha, the founder and editor of Alt News, a disinformation-debunking platform. One photo incorrectly identifies Muskan, while another morphed her into a woman in a midriff-baring top. These tie in with a recent trend of Hindu extremist trolls targeting outspoken Muslim women.
“There are efforts to show that these young Muslim women otherwise don’t wear the hijab, but are doing this all as part of a pre-planned agenda with a higher force behind it.”
Soman notes the irony in Hindu supremacist men claiming to want to “save” Muslim women.
“In fact, these men who claim they want to save Muslim women from hijab oppress their own Hindu women through open diktats against girls wearing jeans or using a smartphone, or troll women who don’t abide by Hindu traditions, and even forbid them from marrying partners of their choice,” she said.
Despite the backlash fuelled largely by local Hindu extremist groups, the Muslim women are continuing their resistance. The movement has reached the courts, after several Muslim women petitioned the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court to allow them to wear hijab in classrooms. The petitioners’ lawyer Devadatt Kamat told the high court that his clients had been made to sit separately in class in January for wearing hijabs. “This is a form of religious apartheid, and untouchability is not fully abolished,” court records quoted him as saying.
On Thursday, the Karnataka High Court told the protesting students to stop wearing religious garments until the final ruling is out. The next morning, Friday, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal for an urgent hearing. “Don’t spread these things to a national level,” the court said in a statement, to the disappointment of the students and activists.
Muskan, who dreams of becoming a lawyer, draws hope from that support to tide herself over the hatred from her own countrymen. “I want to tell all the girls out there: Stand up for your rights. Never be scared. Allah is right there with you.”
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