Ayesha Imthiaz, a devout Indian Muslim who views wearing the hijab as an expression of devotion to the Prophet Muhammad, says her university’s decision to expel girls wearing the hijab is an insult that will force her to choose between religion and education.
“The humiliation of being asked to leave my class for wearing a head scarf by university officials shook my deep belief,” said the 21-year-old student from Udupi district, in South Karnataka, where protests against the ban on head coverings began.
“My religion has been questioned and insulted by a place that I had considered a temple of education,” she told Reuters.
“It’s more like telling us that you chose between your religion or your education, that’s a bad thing,” she said after studying for five years at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial College in Udupi.
Several Muslim girls who protested the ban received threatening calls and were forced to stay indoors, she added.
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College officials say students are allowed to wear the hijab on campus and have only asked them to take it off inside the classroom.
Udupi is one of three districts in the religiously sensitive coastal region of Karnataka, which is a stronghold of Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The standoff has heightened fear and anger among minority Muslims, who say the country’s constitution grants them the freedom to wear whatever they want. Protests against the ban have intensified, with hundreds protesting this month in Kolkata and Chennai.
Last week, a state High Court judge referred motions challenging the ban to a wider panel.
The issue is closely watched internationally as a test of religious freedom guaranteed by India‘s Constitution. The U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) said Friday that the hijab ban “violates religious freedom and stigmatizes and marginalizes women and girls.”
In response, India’s foreign ministry said on Saturday that outside comments on internal matters were not welcome and the matter was under judicial review.
Imthiaz and six other Muslim girls protesting the ban say they are determined to fight for their religious freedom against some hardline Hindu students and even some of their friends.
“It’s really hurtful to see our own friends stand up to us and say ‘I have a problem with you wearing the hijab’…it’s affected our bond and our mental health,” Imthiaz said.
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