Fatema Akhtar started wearing a headscarf to school out of “choice” two years ago and battled her way to keep it. But now, the 17-year-old top scorer from DPS Eldeco in Lucknow may have to choose between an opportunity to be a doctor and keeping her headgear on.
On July 9, school regulator Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) issued a set of instructions for students appearing for the All-India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) on July 25, which includes a first-time dress code.
Students, boys or girls, can’t wear a “scarf”. They must not turn up in “full sleeves” either, and “light clothes” are preferable. Shoes aren’t allowed, but slippers are fine.
For many of the dozens of Muslim girls appearing for the exam, it’s been disquieting. Muslim women who routinely wear the full hijab or even a simple scarf round their heads say they feel awkward in public places without one.
Read: AIPMT retest: Students barred from wearing full-sleeve shirts, watches, shoes
“My father took special permission so I could wear my scarf to school. Why will I give it up now?” asks Akhtar, who scored 92.6% in her Class XII exams. Defiant, Akhtar says she won’t take the test if she is not allowed to wear her scarf and would settle for the Uttar Pradesh state medical exam.
The CBSE’s unusual step, which has nothing to do with religious clothing, aims to ensure students don’t hide devices and notes in the crevices of unwieldy attire, board officials say. They couldn’t quite describe what “light clothes” mean.
Asked to clarify, CBSE chairperson Satbir Bedi said: “We are not referring to a religious headscarf at all. The instructions refer to the other kinds of caps and scarves.”
The written guidelines issued to exam centres, however, don’t make any such distinction.
“This amounts to a violation of religious freedom and therefore fundamental rights. Scores of Muslim girls may opt out. We appeal the CBSE to reconsider,” said Masoom Moradabadi, the general secretary of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat.
Many are in two minds. “My daughter will decide,” says Adib Khan from Bhopal. But it’s unlikely Khan’s daughter will choose to sit for the exam. She wore a full hijab and it would be culturally unacceptable for her to step out in different attire, Khan said.