NPR: As India turns 75, Muslim girls are suing to wear the hijab — and protect secularism

Members of the All India Muslim Students Federation protest at Delhi University against the hijab ban in educational institutions, on Feb. 8 in New Delhi, India.
Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By / NPR

UDUPI, India — Ayesha Shifa is a 16-year-old with a passion for playing badminton with her younger siblings, and a knack for crunching numbers. She loves math and wants to be an accountant. But her dreams — and those of millions of Indian Muslim girls like her — are on hold, thanks to a new rule her school imposed last winter.

In early February, parents of all the Muslim students at Shifa’s public high school in southwest India were called into a meeting. The principal told them their daughters could no longer wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, in class. They’d have to remove it or stay home from school.

“We were shocked because they’d never mentioned any rule like that before, and we’d even asked about it when we enrolled her two years ago,” recalls Shifa’s aunt Malika, 27, who goes by one name and attended the principal’s conference that day. “After two years of COVID lockdown, and then just two months after the school reopened, this new rule came.”

The principal told them it was part of a new dress code after lots of Muslim girls returned to in-person classes wearing headscarves, which they hadn’t worn before the pandemic.

More than one in six Indians is Muslim. They’re the biggest minority in this Hindu-majority country. Shifa comes from a devout Muslim family in Udupi, a district along India’s Malabar coast in the southern state of Karnataka. She’s worn a hijab for several years — since well before the COVID lockdown — and wants to keep doing so.

“I want to wear my hijab and get an education,” she says, her soft voice gaining volume. “I don’t want to have to choose.”

With that resolve, the day after the principal’s meeting Shifa tried to enter the Government Pre-University College for Girls as usual, wearing her navy-blue headscarf. But when she was told by school administrators to take it off or be banned from school, she refused to do so — and she hired a lawyer.

This month, India is celebrating 75 years since the end of British colonial rule and the birth of its democracy — which was envisioned by its founders, including Mahatma Gandhi, as a secular, diverse republic with equal rights for all.

India’s economy and population have exploded since then. Its character has changed too. Since 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalists have been in power. Critics say they’ve been whittling away protections for minorities, and ultimately taking aim at the secularism enshrined in India’s constitution.

Among the obstacles they face is a group of teenage Muslim girls — including Ayesha Shifa — who’ve taken their fight to wear the hijab all the way to India’s Supreme Court. A ruling, expected soon, could redefine what secularism means in the world’s biggest democracy.

A legal case that’s straining India’s unity

The night after that announcement by Shifa’s school principal, her parents held a family meeting. It was one of hundreds of such gatherings in Muslim homes across her school district.

This story was originally published in . Read the full story here

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