PESHAWAR – The alleged thrashing of a female medical student by her professor for wearing a veil in class last month has sparked protests among student groups and liberal-conservative Muslims in Pakistan.
Eyewitnesses told this scribe that the professor, Dr. Rahim Bangash, slapped Misbah Syed, a Pakistani-Canadian citizen studying at Khyber Medical College Peshawar (KMC), for wearing a hijab, a veil that covers the head and chest.Syed was elected as Girl-representative in the class to represent almost 50% of girls in the class premises.
Bangash allegedly started criticism over the veil of the student while saying that she will face difficulties while interaction with the administration and professors of the college in veiled [covered] face. Bangash has a liberal reputation, but liberal Muslims, who believe in people’s rights to follow their own beliefs, reject his alleged actions as repugnant and against Islamic norms. Conservative Muslims are also critical, saying Muslims must live by Islamic principles, including women wearing the veil.
In a statement to the media on Dec. 22, Bangash said he considered the allegations against him baseless. He said that negative-minded people had started propaganda against him and that he had neither slapped Syed nor made derogatory remarks against Islam, as she and witnesses contend.
Although Bangash denies the allegations, Syed said at a press conference four days later that she had audio and video of the entire incident.
“The professor thrashed the student, and Misbah Syed was kicked out of the class after she started arguing with the professor,” one of her classmates told this scribe, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear that his admission would be canceled.
Upon admission, he had signed an affidavit saying he would not take any stance against the college’s image.
He said the argument began when the professor start criticizing Syed for wearing the veil. Syed told the professor that the prophet Muhammad’swives also wore the veil, under Islamic principles of female modesty. In reply, the classmate said, Bangash said that “Muhammad also married 13 wives, so can we follow him now in this era?” (He actually had 11.)
“All the classmates after the incident came out and started protesting against the professor,” he added.
At the press conference at the Peshawar press club, Syed said she had decided against running in an election to represent female students in her class and was elected by the calssmates, which is about 50 percent female, in class activities because she would now face hurdles in interactions with teachers and classmates Syed added that the professor had often insulted bearded students in the college for being conservative.
“The teacher called us Dacoit 1 and Dacoit 2 in class,” she added. A dacoit is a thief wearing a mask or face cover.
Syed demanded that an impartial committee investigate the incident, saying it should include no member from the college.
After the incident, about 200 students protested on campus, blocking university roads to traffic. Students from other universities, including the University of Engineering and Technology, Islamia College University and the University of Peshawar, joined in, chanting slogans against the professor, with banners and placards in their hands.
“We want immediate termination of the professor from the college,” said Hafizullah, leader of the Islamist student organization Islami Jamiat Talba-student wing of Jamat Islami, who was leading the protest.
Professor Dr. Ejaz Hassan khan, principal of the college, told this scribe, “We have formulated a high-level committee comprising professors and other religious scholars for probing the case.”
“We have formed a committee, and they have sent their inquiry report to the KPK government,” Khan said, referring toKhyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and adding that the committee was “completely autonomous.”
A professor at the college, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media on this issue, told this correspondent that Bangash had been terminated from the college. Khan would neither confirm nor deny that report. Bangash did’nt joined the college after the incident.
Most Pakistanis view wearing the veil in public as a right. According to a Pew research analysis in 2013, 70 percent of Pakistanis believe women should decide for themselves whether to wear the veil in public.
A similar controversy was generated in France in 2010 when the parliament passed a bill banning the veil for Muslim women by 355 to 1. Daniel Garrigue, the only member of the National Assembly who opposed the bill, was quoted in international media reports as saying, “To fight an extremist behavior, we risk slipping toward a totalitarian society.”
Syria, a Muslim-majority country, banned the full-face veil in 2010, but the ban was lifted in 2011 after massive protests at universities.
Syed Irfan Ashraf, a liberal Pakistani who writes for the daily Dawn and is working toward a Ph.D. in mass communication at Southern Illinois University, told this scribe that it was both morally and ethically wrong that a professor should thrash a student for wearing a veil.
“I personally condemn the thrashing of the student by a professor in the class,” he said.
Ashraf said the liberal-conservative divide is rising in Pakistani society because of the absence of rule of governance.
Pakistan’s constitution has clear articles about freedom of expression that allow citizens to live according to their own wishes. Article 298 states: “If a person wounded religious feelings of any person, he shall be punished with one year imprisonment or with fine or with both.”
“Wearing the veil on the college and class premises is the right of the women as per the article of freedom of expression of the constitution of Pakistan,” Faiz Ali Khan, a Swat-based lawyer, told this scribe.
“The teacher also insulted Islamic values and can be sued as per Article 298 of the Pakistani penal code,” he added.
Bangash “is famous for his extreme liberal thoughts in the college,” Nasir Ali, a final-year medical student , told this scribe.
After the incident, Shah Farman, KP information minister, sent Syed a hijab and a burqa for following Islamic values and norms.
Farman told The News, a national English daily, “The toughest action would be taken against the teacher so that nobody in future could dare insult any woman for observing purdah.”