CAIRO - Indian activists have warned that a recent decision by a Mangalore college to ban full face-veil in classes would force Muslim students to quit education, a move that could increase dangerous illiteracy rate among Muslim women.
"The burqa is a cultural symbol for Muslim women, Ruth Manorama, president of the National Alliance of Women, told the Times of India on Friday, April 27.
I don't see any point in educational institutions putting a ban on it, he added.
The controversial ban on burqa was imposed by the St Aloysius Pre-University College as part of its prospectus for undergraduate students.
"We mention in the prospectus that a uniform is compulsory for all students," Janardhan Pai, director of Canara Pre-University College, said, adding that their institutions had already made uniforms compulsory for students in PU and degree classes.
We don't say burqa is banned in our institution, but students can enter classrooms only in uniform.
Banning students from wearing face veil, Muslim students were forced to remove it before entering classrooms.
"We were allowed to wear the hijab in classrooms and exam halls," said Kameez Fathima, a student of St Aloysius.
We go to college in the burqa, but we remove it and enter the classroom, wearing our uniform and hijab, she added.
Muslims account for 140 million of India's 1.1 billion people, the world's third-largest Islamic population after those of Indonesia and Pakistan.
While hijab is an obligatory code of dress for Muslim women, the majority of Muslim scholars agree that a woman is not obliged to wear the face veil.
Scholars believe it is up to women to decide whether to take on the veil or burqa, a loose outfit covering the whole body from head to toe and wore by some Muslim women.
Pointing to an increasing illiteracy rate among women, activists warned that the move to ban burqa might end up forcing Muslim students to quit education.
The greatest fear is that if Muslim women are not allowed to wear the hijab or burqa, they will stop going to colleges, said Manorama, the president of the National Alliance of Women.
Already the literacy rate is low among women and this step will pull it down further. Whether covered full or half, women getting education is more important," he added.
"Maybe in the long run, they will shun it on their own, but nobody has the right to impose such a rule."
A large Muslim minority in Hindu-majority India has long complained of being discriminated against in all walks of life.
Muslims complain of decades of social and economic neglect and oppression.
Official figures reveal Muslims log lower educational levels and higher unemployment rates than the Hindu majority and other minorities like Christians and Sikhs.
They account for less than seven percent of public service employees, only five percent of railways workers, around four percent of banking employees and there are only 29,000 Muslims in India's 1.3 million-strong military.
A 2006 report, known as the Sachar Committee report, looked into the socio-economic and educational backwardness of Muslims in the country and suggested various remedial measures.
The recommendations included setting up educational facilities, modernization of madrasahs, creation of job opportunities and steps to increase the community's representation in public services.