Assam school voice: ‘It’s good that the girls have spoken their mind’

Every morning, before going to school, 15-year-old Mahmouda Begum takes off her hijab, folds it carefully, and puts it away in her schoolbag. After school, when she goes out, the hijab is fished out of the bag, wrapped around her head, before returning home a few miles away.

Begum, a class 9 student, says it would be “much less complicated” if the hijab was allowed in school, but adds: “The rules are the rules, our teachers are right too.”

At Juria Upper Secondary School, established in 1948, several Muslim girls find themselves in a similar dilemma, caught between the duty to their families and their religious beliefs to wear the hijab, and school rules that say nothing outside the uniform – white kurta and green dupatta for girls, white shirt and green pants for boys – must be worn.

Asfiya Sultan, 15, Begum’s friend and classmate, says she “feels bad” because the hijab is “part of her identity”.

“It’s something I wear at home, part of my identity. Our families want us to wear it, the elders on the road berate us if we don’t. Then when we come to school , we’re not allowed to,” she says.

More than 3,000 km from Karnataka, where a controversy over the hijab is being played out, girls like Sultan and Begum find an echo. “I don’t know the details but it’s good that the girls spoke up,” Sultan said on the Karnataka issue.

Located in the Nagaon district of Assam, Juria is home to a large Bengali Muslim population of migrant origin, with several pockets of Assamese Hindus. Given Assam’s sensitive identity battles between those considered ‘indigenous’ and those perceived as ‘outsiders’, locals are all too aware of these differences and are concerned about maintaining inter-communal peace.

This also applies to Lycée Juria, with its approximately 1,000 students, of whom around 483 are girls. “Everyone is sensitive to historical flaws here,” says headmaster Rupalim Sarma, who has taught at the school for three decades.

“Our rules strictly say that a dress code must be followed, and it is an unwritten rule that hijabs, burqas or any other outerwear…jeans for that matter…will not be permitted,” she says. So, if ever female students are seen wearing the hijab, the faculty members kindly tell them not to, Sarma says.

“If they’re just using the school dupatta to cover their head, we don’t say anything – but if it’s another color, we usually tell them. We’re careful, so nobody feels so far, the problem has never gotten worse,” she adds.

Rajesh Bora, who teaches English, says he tells his students that as soon as they enter the school, they leave their religious identity outside. “Here, everyone is equal. We have a uniform, and we should follow it. We shouldn’t add our own identity to it,” he says.

Class 9 student Tonu Saha, 15, agrees. “At school, everyone is the same, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian… That’s why we have a uniform,” she says, adding that her two best friends, Farzin and Narzin, are Muslims. “There is no difference between us, so why should the uniforms be different?” she asks.

Narzin, 15, adds that she wears the hijab at home, but not at school, and that’s no problem. “I don’t feel bad about not having to wear it to school,” she says, echoing her friend’s argument that everyone is “equal” at school.

Nurjahnnur Huda, 17, points out that if everyone is equal in school, why should the hijab be a problem. “My simple argument is that if we’re all equal, if we’re secular, if we respect each other’s religions, why should a piece of clothing on the head, even if we wear it, be a problem?”

The class 12 student does not wear a hijab and simply covers her head with her school dupatta. However, whenever she attends her school’s Saraswati Puja function, she wears a traditional Assamese Mekhela Chadar, her long hair open. “Nobody told me not to cover my hair with my school dupatta, but if they do, I will also explain to the teacher my point of view…like the girls in Karnataka did “, she says.

Nagaon District Schools Inspector Mridul Nath explains that although there are minority dominated areas in the district, students generally follow the established school uniform. “They can wear their traditional dress at home as per custom, but don’t wear it at school and follow the dress code,” he says.

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