'Don't Wear a Hijab if You Want to Study Here'

After a year-long court battle, 19-year-old Fakeha has returned to her college in Bhiwandi run by the Janseva Mandal Trust, but says there is still no end to harassment.

Mumbai: It took a 16-month legal battle, the loss of an academic year and several bouts of anxiety before Fakeha, a 19- year old medical student, could return to her college once again.

Sai Homeopathic Medical College and Nityanand Hospital – a private institution in Bhiwandi, north of Mumbai where Fakeha had enrolled herself to the five-year Bachelors of Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery (BHMS) programme in November 2016 – had denied her entry into its premises within three days of the commencement of the course. The reason: she wore a hijab to college.

Even after this effort and a court order, the college has not come to terms with the garment and she says she is facing hostility from the management.

The college management had cited “uniformity in clothing” as a reason to disallow her from entering the college premises with the hijab, but Fakeha feels it is deeply entrenched Islamophobia that has prevented the management from acting reasonable. Last week, Fakeha finally won her more than a year-long legal battle after the Bombay high court decided in her favour and directed the college to let her attend lectures with her hijab on.

In her writ petition, Fakeha had asked the court to allow her to practice her religious belief without any restrictions. The division bench of the Bombay high court comprising Justice R.M. Savant and Justice Sarang Kotwal has also directed the college to allow Fakeha to attend classes in the repeaters batch, meant for those enrolled in the 2016-17 academic year, and complete her education.

When Fakeha returned to her classes on March 19, she had her hijab on.

In November 2016, when Fakeha, a resident of Bandra got herself enrolled in the college 50 kilometres away in Bhiwandi, her only concern was the distance. She had to spend six hours travelling but there was no option because this college was allotted to her through the common entrance test process conducted in the state.

But on reaching college at the start of the academic year, she was in for shock. On the first day, she recalls, the trustees told her that she would have to give up wearing the hijab if she wanted to study here. Fakeha says she was stunned by the college’s response. “I have lived all my life in a liberal space. Wearing a hijab was really never a matter of discussion. My religion is my private affair and no one has ever bothered me before this,” Fakeha told The Wire over the phone.  

Initially, she thought that in a day or two the college administration would stop bothering her. But the pressure only persisted. “The next day, about six-seven of us were rounded up and asked to get rid of the robe. They said only an apron could be worn as a uniform and that the hijab was not allowed. Most girls felt scared and obeyed, but two of us stuck to our grounds,” Fakeha says. But while Fakeha chose to fight back, the other student chose to drop out.

Sai Homeopathic Medical College and Nityanand Hospital. Credit: Homeo Times

For Fakeha, this was more an issue of her identity and her objection was primarily over the control that the institute wanted to exercise over her choice of clothing. “It is not that the college had a dress code. As long as we wore an apron, it should have been fine. But the college wanted to dictate their rules to Muslim students who form 40% of the student body. And that was not acceptable to me,” she adds.

The college is run by the Janseva Mandal Trust and is situated in a town that has a large Muslim population. Most female students in the area wear a burqa or a hijab before they enroll in colleges, Fakeha points out. But the college CEO J P Shukla says that in the 12 years since the college’s inception, not one student has come forward with such a demand. “We are here to make professionals out of students. We discourage religious symbols of any kind to avoid prejudices in the minds of professors and fellow students. It is only a healthy practice that we want to follow,” Shukla told The Wire.  

Before approaching the court, Fakeha’s parents had petitioned the ministry of AYUSH under which courses like homeopathy, ayurveda, unani, naturopathy and yoga are offered. Terming the college’s move “unconstitutional” and “anti-Muslim”, the director of AYUSH Kuldip Raj Kohli had issued a notice to the college asking them to immediately stop the discriminatory practice. “But this letter was dishonoured too,” said Fakeha’s mother Sultanat, who is a doctor of homeopathy. “We wanted to ensure that Fakeha’s education was not impacted in anyway. We went to everyone, from religious heads to local politicians. We even moved the Minorities Commission hoping that the college would give in to the pressure. But they were hell bent on ruining her academic year,” Sultanat added.

Now, with the court’s order, although Fakeha is back in college and is able to wear her headscarf, she says the hostility is palpable. Other students have been allegedly warned against talking to her and the college has refused to issue her journals and an identity card. “I am the only student in the class who has not been issued these. They are finding newer ways to harass me,” Fakeha claimed.  

Since Fakeha secured the court order, there has been a spate of requests from other students to be allowed to wear a hijab or even a burqa. “Sadly the order of the court does not seem to have any larger ramification over this issue. The court had a good opportunity to stop educational institutions from putting such a prohibition on one’s right to carry one’s religious practices. Education cannot be denied merely because someone chooses to wear a turban or a hijab. At least secularism as practiced in our country, doesn’t allow it,” said Fakeha’s lawyer Saranga Ugalmugle.

Fakeha says when she first went to college early this week, a few girls asked her for the court order and expressed their keenness to switch to wearing a burqa. But the college management had anticipated this and has told Muslim students to get an individual court order if they too want to follow suit. “This is bizarre. The court’s order is not in an individual case but a more universal one asking the college to not meddle with students’ religious beliefs. Asking each student to take legal recourse is nothing but harassment,” Fakeha feels.  

In the petition, Fakeha had also sought a transfer to another institute but the college has opposed it. The court, however, did not grant her that relief.  “I would rather be in a more liberal atmosphere where I don’t have to worry about these acute prejudices. But the college wants to make my life miserable,” she adds.

Moving the court was a difficult decision for Fakeha’s family. The break in studies has made her rethink her decision to fight. “This was the last resort. We thought the court order will give respite to me and put an end to the sufferings of other students too. But after all this, I wonder if it was even worth it,” Fakeha feels.