Yes to Turban but No to Hijab?

By Ashwin Tombat
24 March 2019 19:41 IST

Safina Khan Soudagar, a young woman from Merces, near Panaji, was not allowed to appear for the National Eligibility Test (NET) examination in Panaji on Tuesday 18 December because she refused to take off her hijab (a scarf to cover the hair). The supervisor at the Panaji NET examination centre did not allow her to sit for the test.

A post-graduate in Psychology, 24-year-old Safina says that when she explained that the hijab is a religious headgear, she was told that she was required to show her ears. She agreed to re-tie her hijab to make her ears visible. “I asked them to show me to a washroom. They refused. They asked me to do it in the presence of men who aren’t family, which is against Islamic beliefs,” Safina told ‘The Times of India’.

Safina says she chose faith above the ‘rules’, and did not answer the test. It is a big loss for her, because passing the NET is an essential pre-requisite for getting a lecturer’s job in a college.

This is not the first time Safina has had hijab problems. In the passport office, nuns were allowed to keep their headgear, but she was not, even though, as she says, both garments signify the same thing — modesty, religious belief and love for God.

Not one to keep quiet, Safina complained to the Goa State Human Rights Commission. She also sent an e-mail to Goa Director of Higher Education Prasad Lolayekar.

The Commission said it will examine whether it has jurisdiction to take up the case, and adjourned the matter to Friday 1 February. On 1 January 2019, Mr Lolayekar wrote to the National Testing Agency (NTA) of the Union Human Resource Development Ministry, which conducts the NET examination for the University Grants Commission (UGC).

"The woman should have been allowed to appear," Mr Lolayekar said in his letter to the NTA. "Prime facie, it appears there are no rules specified on the website… about restrictions on hijab or a particular dress code."

“If for any reason hijab is not allowed, it should be clearly mentioned in the instructions,” Mr Lolayekar stated. “Examiners and supervisors should be sensitive towards personal liberties and religious sentiments of the candidates,” he added.

Mr Lolayekar is absolutely correct.

To the question: “What do the candidates need to bring to the exam center?” the NTA website’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) say that apart from an admit card and a photograph, “candidates are advised not to bring any other item… There will not be any arrangement for safe keeping of any material… Neither NTA nor the centre will be responsible for any loss, delay, etc.”

Obviously, this does not pertain to a hijab.

The NTA’s ‘Information Bulletin’ lists all the prohibited items: “Any textual material, calculators, docu-pen, slide rules, log tables and electronic watches with facilities of calculator, printed or written material, bits of papers, mobile phone, bluetooth devices, pager or any other electronic gadget / device etc.” Smoking, gutka, tea, coffee, cold drinks, snacks and eatables are also banned, though Diabetic candidates may take in fruits and sweets.

Nothing about a hijab or ears having to be visible…

The UGC has also been served notice by the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) asking why Umaiyah Khan, a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, was not allowed to appear for the NET exam in Delhi for wearing a hijab. It says the incident is “a clear case of discrimination against a religious minority". "This practice has no legal or Constitutional basis. The Kerala High Court has clearly allowed Muslim women to appear in exams and tests while in hijab (wearing scarf and full sleeves)," the DMC notice adds.

Has any UGC or NTA official ever asked a Sikh man to remove his turban before giving the NET exam? Then why this blatant discrimination against Muslim women?

The UGC and the NTA have not responded to Goa’s Director of Higher Education, the Delhi Minorities Commission or the media. Why?

It is more than simply ending a grossly discriminatory practice. As the DMC has rightly asked the UGC, how does it propose to undo the injustice done to the two Muslim women prevented from appearing in the NET exam because of hijab?

(Originally published on Sunday 20 January 2019, in 'Lokmat')

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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