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.
"Until then, we never suffered any discrimination. Many of us never realized our headscarves marked us out as different," says Safa Marwa, a 17-year-old who used to go to school with Shifa but has since transferred to a private Muslim school to avoid the hijab ban. "We used to be lucky in that way."
However, discrimination and attacks — including lynchings — against Muslims have surged across India in recent years, particularly since Modi first rose to leadership. In its latest report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned such violence as "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom" in India.
India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, some 200 million. Gandhi believed the success of Indian democracy depended on their integration. He described them as inseparable from the Indian nation, and believed that Hindu-Muslim enmity was a product of British colonial rule.
"Gandhi's reasoning was not that Muslims should stay in India to keep the peace. Rather, it was a moral argument: They are Indians!" says Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi's biographer and one of India's leading contemporary historians. "Our state does not define itself by religion. In our democracy, citizenship and rights are not conferred by religion."
A protest at one high school spreads across India
At Shifa's high school, some Muslim girls decided to comply with the new dress code and continued attending school without hijabs. But the day after the principal's meeting with parents, when Shifa returned to school wearing her hijab, so did dozens of other girls — about half her classmates, Shifa estimates.
They stood at the front gate, pleading to be let in. Staff refused. Both sides raised their voices. "We want justice!" some of the girls chanted.
Someone recorded video of the confrontation, and it went viral — igniting protests across India. Similar standoffs were happening between Muslim girls and school administrators across Udupi district. Protests sprang up in defense of the girls. Hindu extremists — gangs of men in saffron scarves — organized rival protests, denouncing Muslims. Demonstrations spread across Karnataka — and all of India. Solidarity rallies were held as far away as New York City.
Authorities in Udupi shut schools on Feb. 8, just a few days after the principal's announcement, to prevent violence. Two days later, the whole state of Karnataka — governed by Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — banned headscarves and any religious garb in all public schools. (In addition to hijabs, the ban also covered saffron shawls, other types of scarves and "religious flags." Officials later clarified that Sikh turbans would still be allowed.)
In March, Karnataka's High Court upheld that order. Schools reopened after about a week, and girls in headscarves were barred from entering.
So Shifa hasn't been to class since February.
"The victims are the women," says Ghazala Wahab, author of Born a Muslim, a book about anti-Muslim prejudice in India. "Because even if these court cases go their way — which is certainly not guaranteed, in the current environment — these women have been marked absent. All of them are being marked absent for a year."
Wahab worries some may quit school altogether. In India, school is compulsory only until age 14. Female education is one of the most important tools for development, Wahab says, but the dropout risk is high for girls from conservative, religious families who tend to marry young.
Amid concerns over judicial independence, there's uncertainty over how the courts may rule
Six girls from another Udupi high school are appealing the Karnataka High Court's decision. But Shifa is part of another class action lawsuit filed directly to India's Supreme Court.
The family is confident Shifa will win her case and return to school — and that India's Supreme Court will affirm the right of Muslim women to wear headscarves in all of the country's public schools.
Advocates for human rights and religious freedom in India aren't so sure. With Hindu nationalism surging, hate crimes on the rise and questions about the independence of India's judiciary, they say the outcome is far from clear.
In 2019, the Supreme Court sided with Hindu nationalists in a property dispute over Ayodhya, a disputed holy site in northern India where Hindu extremists in 1992 demolished a 16th century mosque and killed thousands of Muslims. Meanwhile the judges' failure so far to rule on petitions brought by Muslims elsewhere suggests they are "complicit in the dismantling of Indian democracy," Guha says.
"Among the institutions that have betrayed their calling is the Indian Supreme Court. It has become an instrument of the state, and sometimes even an instrument of the ruling party," he says. "It should be defending rights and individual liberties, but it's often giving a free pass to the state to violate individual liberties."
Some believe the girls fighting to wear the hijab are being "used as pawns"
A temple dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna attracts pilgrims to Udupi from across the country. But these days, the town is becoming more famous for this headscarf battle. Some Hindus resent that.
"It's unnecessary drama. We are a Hindu nation, and therefore I think these girls are discriminating against us [Hindus], not the other way around," says Reshma Shetty, a 28-year-old schoolteacher visiting the temple. "The girls should respect the decision of the Karnataka High Court. But it shows their culture and their upbringing, that they're not following the orders of institutions."
Shetty believes the girls have been coaxed into this confrontation by radical Islamist groups. She feels sorry for everyone involved, she says. The girls, she believes, have been "used as pawns by political parties" on both sides.
That's an allegation often repeated in Udupi — by Muslims as well as Hindus.
"These are small girls — 16 or 17 — so they're not mature enough to understand what political games are going around here," says Yasin, 29, a prominent Muslim lawyer, columnist and activist in Udupi who serves informally as a liaison to the area's Muslim community.
Muslim girls organize — and arouse suspicion
Yasin, who goes by one name, is referring to "political games" he alleges are being played both by Modi's Hindu nationalists and by local Muslim groups. Yasin knows many of the girls' families but is not representing any of them. He is not affiliated with the Muslim groups or any of the current lawsuits.
Yasin says he believes the current conflict goes back to late last year, when Udupi high schools were still in COVID lockdown. In November, some female Muslim students from Udupi attended a women's march organized by Modi's Hindu nationalists, Yasin recalls. It was a march against gender-based violence, and local women of all faiths attended. It was an issue that united them.
At the march, a local news photographer snapped a photo of Muslim and Hindu girls marching arm in arm. Some were wearing headscarves; some weren't.
When the photo reached social media, it made a conservative Muslim group uncomfortable, Yasin alleges. So the group — the Campus Front of India — approached the girls and their families (the father of one of the girls was already a CFI member). It discouraged them from mixing with Hindu nationalists, and encouraged them to celebrate their Muslim identity instead — by wearing the hijab when they returned to school that winter.
Yasin says he's suspicious about how quickly many of the girls embraced the hijab after CFI approached them, and became activists for it. Almost overnight, he says, they built a huge social media presence which he says appears to be coordinated.
"On the same day, all these Twitter accounts opened. Six girls all opened Twitter accounts simultaneously," Yasin says, referring to the six Udupi girls who are plaintiffs in the Karnataka High Court appeal. "I observed that, and I just smelled something — something bad."
Shifa is not on Twitter. And she denies any involvement with CFI, the student wing of the Popular Front of India, which the Indian government considers an Islamist extremist group.
A Campus Front of India local figure acknowledges "guiding" some of the girls
NPR spoke with several CFI leaders by phone and visited their offices in Mangaluru, the regional capital south of Udupi. A local CFI leader acknowledged coaching the Udupi schoolgirls to organize and protest against their schools' hijab ban.
"CFI is directly [helping]. We are guiding them totally in a legal way, democratically," says the local leader, Syed Sarfaraz, 23, a chemistry graduate student.
Sarfaraz calls the Udupi girls "perfect victims" — sympathetic characters without political ties. Their experience can help CFI show the world what Hindu nationalists are doing in India, he says.
In addition to restricting the wearing of hijabs in schools, "They are banning Muslim vendors and calling on the Hindu community not to buy anything from Muslim shops. This is Islamophobia!" Sarfaraz exclaims. "And it's growing. We have to uphold our constitutional rights. We need strong resistance."
What Sarfaraz says about his locality, Mangaluru, is true: Hindu nationalist politicians have called on their followers to boycott Muslim-owned and -operated businesses. In Udupi, Muslim vendors have been banned from selling their wares at local festivals and within a certain radius of Hindu temples. But most of those things happened after — and in response to — the Muslim girls' initial hijab protest.
Such zoning rules are nevertheless part of a trend to disenfranchise Muslims across India. Last year, authorities in Modi's home state of Gujarat sought to ban non-vegetarian food stalls. (Upper-caste Hindus traditionally eat vegetarian, and stalls selling meat are often associated with Muslims.) In Delhi, Hindu nationalist authorities have been bulldozing Muslim homes.
One of the consequences is that many Indian Muslims feel ever more embattled and just want to keep their heads down.
"We're doing our jobs, and they [Hindu nationalist leaders] are creating negative statements about us. What can we do?" asks Mohammed Shazi, 19, who works at a perfume shop in Mangaluru. "Protesting is even more sensitive for us. I leave it for the political parties. I won't participate."
An uncertain future for Muslim girls in India's public schools
For now, Shifa remains at her family's home in Udupi, playing badminton with her siblings, binge-watching TV series and studying independently.
The family never thought she'd be out of school for so long, says her mother, Nafisa, 43, who goes by one name. "We thought the Karnataka High Court would rule in our favor" in March, she says. "But that did not happen."
In the spring, Shifa was supposed to take a series of exams. To register for them, the school asked the family to submit a photo of her without her hijab. They refused. It felt like another dig, Nafisa says.
So Shifa missed her exams. For now, she won't be promoted to 11th grade.
Still, her family remains committed to figuring out a way for her to continue her education. They are weighing whether they can afford to transfer Shifa to a private Muslim school, where the hijab is still allowed.
But Shifa says she wants to hold out for India's Supreme Court, so that she can go back to her public school. She doesn't want to have to start anew somewhere else.
"I think about school all the time," she says. "About when I'll be able to return."
NPR producer Raksha Kumar contributed to this report from Udupi, India.