Srinagar School in Eye of Storm After Muslim Girls Say They Were Asked to Remove Abaya

The move by the Vishwa Bharati Higher Secondary School prompted angry reactions from political parties and religious leaders, who termed the decision as “interference in religious matters”. Aggrieved students said that they would rather sit at home than follow the “diktat”.

Srinagar: A school in Jammu and Kashmir’s capital Srinagar is in the eye of a storm after several girl students in abayas, a loose-fitting robe worn by Muslim girls and women, were disallowed from entering the campus on the morning of June 8, Thursday.

The move prompted angry reactions from political parties and religious leaders, who termed the decision as “interference in religious matters”. Aggrieved students said that they would rather sit at home than follow the school “diktat”.

The principal of Vishwa Bharati Higher Secondary School (VBHSS) initially admitted that the girls were asked to remove their abayas but following the uproar, the management of the privately-owned school – which is located in Srinagar’s Rainawari locality – apologised for the “misrepresentation of facts”. It claimed that there was no official order banning the abaya on school premises and that the girl students were only told to follow a “dress code”.

Protests and anger against ‘diktat’

The issue came to light on the morning of June 5, Monday, when dozens of girl students of Class 11 and Class 12 at VBHSS staged a protest outside the school, alleging that they were asked to remove their abayas before entering the school premises.

The protesting students said that the school principal directed them on Wednesday to come to school without wearing an abaya. “When I turned up at school on Thursday morning, the gatekeeper didn’t allow us inside. He told us that if we insist on wearing hijab, we should go to darasgah (Islamic seminary),” said Nighat Rasool, a Class 11 student.

A video from the protest that went viral on social media shows a Class 12 student, who was identified as Rehana Manzoor, arguing with a male staffer after she was purportedly disallowed from entering the school premises on Thursday morning.

“What have I got to do with this? Go and do what you want,” the male staff, who is not visible in the video, shouted at the girl student.

“Why should we obey these diktats,” the student shouted back in response. “There are boys inside the school. Instead of checking their illicit activities, the school principal is asking us to remove our abayas. As a female Muslim, she should be ashamed of herself.”

Rehana added: “My creator is dearer to me than this school. It is my Allah and Prophet Mohammad’s order that females should wear abaya. I will not remove it”.

Rumaisa Jan, another Class 12 student at VBHSS, claimed that the school principal, who met the aggrieved students on Wednesday, accused them of wearing abayas in order to indulge in “illegal activities”.

“I am one of the school toppers. The school management spoke to my parents on Wednesday and still insisted that we should remove the abaya. They want us to wear jeans. They don’t allow us to participate in extracurricular activities because of our abayas,” she said.

Also Read | ‘People Think No Woman Could Wear a Hijab Out of Choice’: Stories of Everyday Discrimination

Some parents, who also joined the protest, and agitated students said that the school was a girls-only institution but the management recently converted it into a coeducation institution without any consultations.

Abdul Majid, an aggrieved father, told The Wire that the decision of the school management was “against the tenets of Islam”. He said, “I will rather have my daughter sit at home than allow her to go to school without wearing an abaya. If she wears abaya at home, why should the school management have any problems if she wears one at school.”

A Class 11 student, Rabia Rasool, said that there was no dress code at the school and the management was forcing the girl students to remove the abayas. “Students in foreign universities wear hijabs. The Indian constitution gives us this freedom. Who is she to tell us what we should or should not wear? Under which rules are we stopped from entering the school?” she asked.

“The principal told us on Wednesday that she feels very bad to see us in abayas, that we should not wear them. Our parents are being told that we are teaching other girl students to wear abayas. Even if we are doing it, what is wrong in it?” said Sana Rahim, a Class 11 student.

The National Conference’s chief spokesperson Tanvir Sadiq said that wearing a hijab should be a personal choice and there should be no interference in matters of religious attire. “It is unfortunate to witness such incidents in a Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir. We strongly oppose this and urge for immediate corrective action,” he tweeted.

Kashmir’s Grand Mufti Nasir-ul-Islam said that there is no official order to disallow abaya-wearing students from entering the school. “Since the institution has been converted into a co-education institution despite being a girls-only institution, the girls have every right to protect their modesty by wearing a hijab,” he said.

A protest against the ban on abaya imposed by the Vishwa Bharati Public Higher Secondary School in Srinagar’s Rainawari locality on June 8, 2023. Photo: Faizan Mir

Principal admits, later backtracks

Nimroz Shafi, the school principal, initially admitted that the girl students have been asked to remove their abayas. She told media persons at her office that the students have been asked to wear a white coloured hijab at school.

Hijab is headgear which doesn’t cover the wearer’s body.

“Some girl students come to school in multi-coloured abayas with different designs, which is against the rules. Hijab is included in school uniform and a student is bound to wear uniform at school. I have given them three choices. No one is removing their abayas but they have been asked to wear hijab or headscarf at school,” she told media persons at her office.

Later, in a statement, the school principal said that the allegations of the students are “totally baseless and misrepresented”.

“The school management always respects the sentiments of all the sections of the society vis-a-vis the dress code …. no ban has been imposed … on wearing abaya but it was politely conveyed to the students to wear school uniform underneath the abaya,” the statement said.

“All students … can wear the abaya and no such restrictions have been imposed in the classrooms. Today’s conversation with the students and the parents has been misrepresented and in any case if it has hurt the sentiments of the students or the parents, I unconditionally apologise for the same,” she said.

Note: Some names have been changed.