For many months, 18-year-old Afiya (name changed) from the southern Indian state of Karnataka was burning the midnight oil to appear in the 12th-grade exam and then appear in the competitive test to seek admission into a medical college.
But she could not appear for the test, as the school did not allow her to enter the examination hall wearing the hijab or headscarf.
After the Karnataka High Court on March 15, upheld the ban imposed by educational institutions on wearing headscarves inside the premises, many Muslim female students have either opted out from the examinations or are finding alternative means to pursue education.
The court ruled that "wearing of hijab by Muslim women doesn't form a part of essential religious practice in the Islamic faith."
"I feel bad about my studies. I was not allowed to sit in the exam, with a hijab ... I won't be able to even sit in the NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) for admission to medical college," said Afiya.
She is now looking to seek admission to another school, where she is allowed to wear a hijab.
"I don't know about my future. I feel my dreams are getting shattered every day," said Afiya, adding that she stopped going to school in February this year.
Like Afiya, the dreams of many Muslim girls have come crashing, who had been left to choose between their identity, freedom, dress, and their education.
The issue started in January when female Muslim students were barred from entering classrooms in a government college in the Udupi district in Karnataka for wearing hijab. Subsequently, other institutions also followed the diktat.
The students have now pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court, which is hearing the case.
"We have been wearing hijab since childhood and not recently. They (college) should allow us to write exams in hijab. Earlier, they had no problems, but they were banned after the court order came," said Hiba Sheikh, another student who is also not attending college since March.
She has already missed one college semester. "These days fourth-semester classes are going on. We don't go because they are not allowing us to enter the premises," she said.
Sheikh said she was hopeful that the apex court will dispense justice.
"Students are mentally traumatized. Everyone is tensed about what is going to happen in the future,” she added.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Kidiyoor Nihal, national secretary of Students Islamic Organization of India – the students' wing of socio-religious organization Jamaat-e-Islami said the issue has put the future of thousands of female students at stake.
"This deliberate, vengeful, hateful agenda to deny access to students to education is a calamitous situation which would result in loss of trust in public institutions which have far-reaching consequences," he said.
Nihal said that the situation could have been amicably resolved at an early stage and level if there was ever an intention to do it.
"At every instance, the situation was politicized from college level to district to state boards to courts. We feel that dialogue and deliberations are the cornerstones of our society and Indian constitution," he said.
He said since it was an issue of personal choice and autonomy, he hoped that the apex court will deliver justice.
"This is an important landmark for our institutions to show spine and stand up for the citizens of this country," he said.
The former top bureaucrat and now an educationist Syed Zafar Mahmood told AA that the matter needs to be resolved by the elders and learned persons of the Muslim community and representatives of other communities.
"Yes, the hijab gets its accreditation from the Holy Quran. But simultaneously, Islam also requires the believers to obey the law of the land where they live. An order of a High Court in India is final unless and until overruled by the Supreme Court. Hence, as of date, the Karnataka High Court’s order on hijab has to be necessarily complied with. Such adherence is mandated by the Constitution of India as well as by the Quranic injunction ...," he said.
Defending the hijab ban, Ganesh Karnik, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) told AA that the students must follow the rules and regulations governing educational institutions. "Any responsible student should understand their responsibility and accountability and follow the rules of the institutions,” he said.
Karnik said the "institutions have their rules and regulations" which need to be followed like "one individual has own rights and choices."
"All these students if they are responsible students and citizens, must understand that the first duty as a citizen is to follow the rules. If they are not doing, they are not irresponsible. If they want to break the rules or attend the schools, it is their decision,” he said.
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