Will the hijab row undo India’s youth demographic dividend?

    EducationWill the hijab row undo India’s youth demographic dividend?
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    Will the hijab row undo India’s youth demographic dividend?

    Girls and women negotiate multiple challenges in making choices or pursuing their interests, even when it comes to education. Muslim girls have moved forward in their aspirations and capacities to access education. The hijab controversy has the potential to backtrack precious achievements.

    By Annie Namala

    The National Youth Policy, 2014 opens with the country’s recognition and commitment to its youth population: “India lies at the cusp of a demographic transition…  in order to capture this demographic dividend, it is essential that ….the youth have the appropriate education, skills, health awareness and other enablers to productively contribute to the economy”.

    Rightly, education figures as one of the eleven identified priority areas. The country has also invested its energies in conceptualizing and legislating to make education a fundamental right and special measures to promote education among the disadvantaged Dalit and tribal people and minorities, with a special focus on girls. While Muslim girls seem to have moved forward in their aspirations and capacities to access education beyond the matric, the controversy on the hijab has the potential to backtrack precious achievements.

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    As per the census 2011, the literacy rate among Muslim was 59.1 per cent as against the national literacy rate 64.8 per cent. Literacy rate for Muslim women at 50.1 per cent far below the national literacy rate of 53.7 per cent for women. The census 2011 also reported Muslims having the highest illiteracy rates among all religious groups – 42.7 per cent of Muslims are illiterate against 36.9 per cent for all religious communities. The access to higher education continues to be low and Muslims constitute approx. 7 per cent of those who have studied to graduation and above even as their population is 14.2 per cent. Work participation among Muslims is low at 33 per cent while the nation-wide work participation was 40 per cent in 2011.

    Impressive advance

    Against this, an important trend seen during this period is that Muslims showed the highest increase in literacy rates at 9.4 percentage points from 59.1 per cent to 68.5 per cent in the decade between 2011 and 2021. This reflects the community’s interest and efforts in accessing education over the space of a decade. The literacy rates of Muslim women increased from 50.1 per cent in 2011 to 62.0 per cent in 2021 (as mentioned by minority affairs minister in Parliament in 2021), reducing the gender gap with Muslim men which increased from 67.6 per cent in 2011 to 68.5 per cent in 2021.

    Banning Muslim girls from entering colleges with their hijabs is a new controversy, given the wide prevalence of the practice for years. The practice varies across different Muslim communities and states and has not hitherto presented a hinderance to public interest, health and morality requiring a curb on the practice. Questions are raised whether the girls are choosing to wear the hijab on their own accord or are pressured by their families or their community, if they are old enough to make such choices on their own? The counter protest by hundreds of young people with saffron scarves and head-gears seem an organized action.

    Enable education without prohibition

    Girls and women negotiate multiple challenges in making choices or pursuing their interests, even when it comes to education. One cannot over-rule the possibility that the girls may be negotiating wearing the hijab to pursue their education. They may or may not be making a conscious choice to wear the hijab. In either case, it does not take away their right to access education and the country’s responsibility to respect, protect and promote their right to education.

    They may experience a sense of safety and protection in wearing a hijab. One would expect the government to fulfill the protection accorded to minority communities and facilitate their fledgling steps into the wider social canvas than allowing the majority community youth to counter, heckle and threaten them.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has already pushed back education in the country by a few years. Schools have been closed for close to two academic years. Various reports flag further disadvantages for girls and children from marginalized communities to access on-line education. A considerable proportion of children may not resume their schooling even as schools re-open. There is no comprehension of the learning- loss among children and the preparedness of educational institutions in helping them cope. The need of the hour is to build enabling support mechanisms for children to attend schools freely and fearlessly and not one of prohibition.

    Diversionary methods

    The hijab and similar controversies are sure ways of politically colonizing the young minds, pushing them away from critical concerns of their own growth and development. It is a sure way of diverting the public from questions around education policies, budgets, achievements and inequalities therein. Even as young minds from communities that are already educationally disadvantaged are engaged in such controversies, the educationally endowed youth continue their education in elite private institutions in and outside the country. Sadly, one does not see adequate efforts from the State in translating the stated objectives for the youth population dividend. A question that comes to mind is this: Will the youth population dividend be realized at the expense of minority and disadvantaged youth.


    Annie Namala is an education activist


    Image: Wikimedia commons – Muslim girls in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir by Adam Jones


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