Keep the burqa, remove the veil
My first reaction on reading the news that St Aloysius College in Mangalore had restricted the use of burqa was that it was unnecessarily provocative. I had studied in the college many moons ago. It has a reputation for discipline but I do not recall the Jesuits who ran it as punctilious sticklers for rules. We thought they were broad minded unlike the prissy principal of the all-girls St Agnes College who was mean enough to adjourn classes earlier than usual one afternoon so that few would greet the customary victory procession that we took out after the student union election. But that diabolic game failed as St Agnes girls lined up the street rather than go home early! Some of our teachers were academically accomplished. Our principal, a priest, was a well-known botanist, and engaged in research, which greatly elevated him in our eyes. The Tamil accountancy teacher was as extremely dedicated as he was shy, and had a temper to match. Our college made us proud. We looked up to it - literally. It was a majestic building. It sat atop a hill like a tiara and commanded a panoramic view of a valley carpeted with palm fronds that shimmered in the clear noon sun like the waters of the Arabian Sea beyond. We flaunted the college chapel. It was covered from floor to ceiling with frescoes.
Mangalore is multi-religious. There are a sizeable number of Muslims (22 per cent) and Catholics (9 per cent). Religious identities are acute. In conversation among themselves is it not unusual for Catholics, for instance, to refer to people from other communities as 'that mapli' (mapilla or Muslim), 'konkno' (Konkani-speaking Gaud Sarawat Brahmin) or 'bonkyancho' (of the Bunt or Shetty community). In this sense Mangalore is a salad platter, not a soup bowl. It is diversity that makes Mangalore so vibrant and fascinating. There were some hotspots, but on the whole the place was communally inert. The communities were settled and they had learnt to live with each other.
In the past three decades or so there has been a resurgence of religiosity. Fundamentalist Christian cults are finding recruits, mostly among Catholics. Muslims working in West Asia have imported Wahhabism, an intolerant version of Islam. But it is the government-backed RSS and its affiliates that poison social relations. They do not hesitate to use violence. They have kept up tension by insinuating themselves into Hindu-Muslim love affairs, intercepting cattle meant for slaughter and carrying on a campaign against (fictional) forcible conversions. In this negatively-charged atmosphere, a restriction on the burqa in the classroom, I thought, would be misconstrued as yet another attack on the Muslim community, this time by a minority institution.
It is a charge that worries Prof AM Narahari, who joined the college when I was in the final year and is now its registrar. 'There is nothing religious about it,' he says. The burqa is not banned on the campus; only in the classroom and in examination halls. Even there, students are allowed to cover their heads with shawls. Most of the Muslim students are cooperative, he says. Only a couple of them would keep their faces covered. Teachers find it disconcerting to address such students. When told to lift the veil, these students ask 'where is the rule'? Even exam squads, trying to enforce discipline, are similarly rebuffed. Hence it was decided to insert the rule in the prospectus this year.
Prof Narahari does not intend to be heavy-handed. Persuasion has worked all these years and that will continue to be his line of action. The dress code is not meant as a control tool, he insists. There will be no harassment.
If the burqa is banned in the classroom what about the habit that Catholic nuns wear, I ask Prof Narahari. It is their usual attire and not a covering, he says. The habit is to the nun, in other words, what the cassock is to the priest and the robe is to the monk.
St Aloysius became co-ed, exactly 25 years ago, 107 years after it came into existence. It is an autonomous institution with its own syllabus and examination system. There are over 5,000 students; a little over half are girls. In some of the 16 post-graduate courses, their proportion is as high as 80 per cent. The district, of which Mangalore is the headquarters, is progressive. More girls are born than boys. It is highly literate too (89 per cent average, 93 per cent men, 84 per cent women). The Muslim community has to catch up on education. There are 201 Muslim girls in St Aloysius. My own sense is that it is more important to get more of them to attend college than to allow a matter of dress to stand in the way (because education is subversive). Those who take their religion literally perhaps would not have allowed girls into college. But if they did defying their pangs, why raise the degree of difficulty? My advice: let Muslim girls keep the burqa but not the veil.
Catholic priests never fail to excoriate girls showing too much skin, during Sunday mass. Now they make a fuss when little is shown! It all boils down to a sense of proportion. Prof Narahari says parents have not complained. Muslim community leaders should not too. St Aloysius can be accommodating. Let Muslim girls can cover their body and head. But they must keep their eyes open.
More about Vivian FernandesVivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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