Due to the gradual and consistent polarization of our society, it is becoming increasingly hard to conduct public debate without hurting the sentiments of the oversensitive. Our classrooms, which ought to be buzzing with new ideas and vigorous discussions, are facing the brunt of the state of affairs in the wider country. Dealing with an issue which may involve religious beliefs, is much like defusing a bomb; one wrong move, and watch everything blow out of proportion. The ongoing controversy involving a student, Ms Misbah Syed and Prof Dr Rahim Bangash, from Khyber Medical College, Peshawar, is just another occurrence, part of vast trend.

According to reports, Prof Bangash was discussing the need for doctor-patient communication and relationship, and how a veil may limit a doctor’s capability in achieving it. He also highlighted the issue of identification, as the veil – by the nature of its very purpose – makes it quite challenging. Allegedly, Ms Syed – who wears a veil – was infuriated by the expressed views. She snatched the professor’s microphone, and started addressing the class instead. She informed everyone that the scarf was a religious obligation, despite the fact that its religious status was never under question. The situation further deteriorated when the student refused to return the microphone and leave the class, as per the teacher’s instructions.

And, since what started as an academic discussion turned into a religious dispute, the student felt confident to hold a press conference. Student wings of religious parties got involved, protests to defend religion commenced, only to halt with a provincial minister’s assurance of ‘justice’. The matter is now in the hands of an enquiry committee set-up by the university administration, which has recorded statements from both the parties involved.

Haranguing an educational institute for holding a debate is not the right way to handle the situation. It must be clarified that the issue here is not whether someone has the right to wear a veil or not. How anyone dresses is a matter of personal choice. No one has to the right to dictate their own version of adequate clothing, and impose it upon others. However, is it reasonable to discuss the possible effects on one’s practice and performance if dressed in a certain fashion? Or, will it be deemed as an attack on sacred concepts? Such narrow-mindedness belongs in the past. It is impossible to move forward with the rest of the world if objective debate is censored in order to appease the intolerant. Overreactions to differing views, prompted by self-righteousness and ignorance, must be discouraged at all levels.