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India's Supreme Court will soon rule on Muslim headscarves in public schools

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

India turns 75 in August. The country's economy has grown in leaps and bounds since the end of British colonial rule, and India's identity has also changed. In recent years, voters have elected a Hindu nationalist government. It's been whittling away at the secularism written into India's constitution. From southern India, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports on what this means for India's biggest minority, Muslims, and the surprising role that some teenage girls are playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE WALKING ON DIRT ROAD)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: We're at the end of a dirt road here; taking our shoes off; going inside this house.

Hello.

MALLIKA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MALLIKA: She's silent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

MALLIKA: Her sister will talk to you (laughter).

FRAYER: We've come to a village on India's steamy Malabar Coast to meet a soft-spoken 16-year-old.

AYESHA SHIFA: My name is Ayesha Shifa.

FRAYER: What is your favorite subject in school?

SHIFA: Commerce.

FRAYER: Commerce?

SHIFA: (Laughter).

FRAYER: Ayesha wants to be an accountant when she grows up. But her dreams are on hold because of something that happened at school this year. Back in February, all the parents of Muslim students were called into a meeting and told their daughters could no longer wear headscarves in class.

MALLIKA: We shocked because they never said to us, do not wear the hijab.

FRAYER: Ayesha's aunt Mallika, who goes by one name, says the principal told them it was part of a new dress code imposed after lots of Muslim girls returned to in-person classes after COVID in headscarves which they hadn't worn before. Ayesha has actually worn a hijab for years. She's from a religious family.

SHIFA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "I want to wear my hijab and get an education," she says. "I don't want to have to choose."

So she went to school the next day as usual, in her navy blue headscarf. Several other girls did the same, and someone recorded video of what happened next.

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: The girls stood at the gate of their school, pleading to be let in. Their principal refused. Video of the commotion went viral, igniting protests across India...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: (Chanting) We want justice. We want justice.

FRAYER: ...Some in defense of the girls, but some also from Hindu extremists denouncing Muslims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Authorities had to shut schools to prevent violence. And Ayesha's whole state, which is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalists, decided to ban headscarves and any religious garb in all public school classrooms. So Ayesha hasn't been to school since February.

These are your books?

SHIFA: Yes, business studies. This is accountancy.

FRAYER: Accounting? Decimal fraction to binary conversion.

She's trying to study at home instead, but she's also hired a lawyer to take her fight to wear her hijab in the classroom to India's Supreme Court.

MALLIKA: We shocked. She has came the news. She has came in the TV, so yeah...

FRAYER: Soft-spoken Ayesha is now one of several petitioners at India's highest court. Judges are expected to rule soon on the constitutionality of Muslim headscarves in all of India's public schools.

Now, the timing of this case makes some people nervous. Hindu nationalism is surging in India. Hate crime against Muslims is on the rise. And there are questions about the independence of the judiciary.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

FRAYER: Bells ring at a Krishna temple in Ayesha's hometown. It's a famous Hindu pilgrimage site. But this town is now more famous for this headscarf battle.

RESHMA SHETTY: We don't do unnecessary drama. (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "These Muslim girls are creating unnecessary drama," says a Hindu worshipper named Reshma Shetty. She says she thinks they've been coaxed by radical Muslim groups. It's an allegation you hear often, even from some Muslims themselves.

YASIN: Small girls, no. Actually, 16, 17 they're not that mature to understand what all political games are going around.

FRAYER: Yasin, who also goes by one name, is a local Muslim lawyer and activist. He says this all began late last year, when Muslim girls attended a women's march organized by Modi's Hindu nationalists. A Muslim group didn't like that, and it approached the girls. It encouraged them to celebrate their Muslim identity instead, by wearing headscarves when they went back to school. And the girls became activists and suddenly had a social media presence almost overnight, Yasin recalls.

YASIN: I went to their Twitter accounts and seen that the same day, all Twitter accounts opened - six girls, all Twittering on the same day open. I observed that. I was - I smelled something, something bad.

FRAYER: He thinks this headscarf fight has been orchestrated by the Campus Front of India or CFI. It's the student wing of what the Indian government considers an Islamist extremist group. Now, Ayesha denies involvement with them, but I visited their offices...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

FRAYER: ...And met local leader Syed Sarfaraz. He says some of the other girls approached him, not the other way around. But he doesn't deny coaching them.

SYED SARFARAZ: CFI is directly - we are guiding them totally in legal way and democratically.

FRAYER: He says these girls are the perfect victims to help his group show the world what Hindu nationalists are doing here.

SARFARAZ: They are banning Muslim vendors, and they are calling to Hindu community to not to buy any things from Muslim shops. This is Islamophobia, which is growing. We have to uphold our constitutional rights. We need strong resistance.

FRAYER: Resistance, he says, to stop the erosion of religious freedom for India's 200 million Muslims.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

FRAYER: People like Mohammed Shazi - he works at a local perfume shop and accuses outside goons, Hindu and Muslim extremists, of hijacking Ayesha's case.

MOHAMMED SHAZI: They're creating negative statements about us. What can we do?

FRAYER: He just wants to keep his head down and his shop open. The Muslim community here feels ever more embattled.

Ghazala Wahab, who wrote a book about anti-Muslim prejudice in India, says there's a sad irony here. In fighting for their rights, with help from a political group and from social media, these girls are losing out on their education.

GHAZALA WAHAB: The victim is actually your own. Because these women, they are marked absent. All of them are being marked absent.

FRAYER: And female education is so important to their community's development and equality.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANS CLANKING)

FRAYER: For now, Ayesha is home in her family's kitchen, learning how to bake a cake, but still dreaming of being an accountant.

SHIFA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: She says she worries constantly about when or even if she'll be allowed to go back to school with her hijab.

Do you worry, if they have to spend six months out of school, the danger is they never go back?

MALLIKA: I'm not worried about that. She will go back, and she will study. And she will do the exams, and she will achieve the dreams there. She will do it.

FRAYER: India's Supreme Court may decide that very soon.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Udupi, Mangalore, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.