By Nithin Sridhar
The Supreme Court has decided not to allow students appearing for the re-test of All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) to wear hijab (Muslim head scarf) during examination.
A bench led by Chief Justice H L Dattu was hearing a petition by Students Islamic Organization (SIO) of India requesting the SC to allow Muslim aspirants appearing for the AIPMT re-test to wear hijab, after CBSE prohibited the candidates appearing for AIPMT from wearing hair pins, head bands, scarves, belts, caps, and full-sleeve clothes according to a report in The Hindu.
The SIO had petitioned saying that the CBSE directions will prevent Muslim students from adhering to their religious principles. Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde who appeared for the organization submitted in the court that the head scarf is essential to Islamic religious practice and the students are supposed to wear it.
Responding to this, the Chief Justice said: “Faith is not connected to the clothes you wear. For three hours, you adhere to the rules (of CBSE) when you write the exams. Do this for the sake of the exams, which has been already re-scheduled. The court cannot be moved for such small issues,” according to the report.
This decision of the SC upholding CBSE directive must be seen in the background of the AIPMT examination and why it was ordered to be re-conducted.
Major Fraud in AIPMT examinations
In May, Haryana Police arrested a gang of four people who were involved in leaking AIPMT question papers. The gang included two dental surgeons and one MBBS student and one other person.
The gang used mobile phones, bluetooth devices, shirts, and bras fitted with chips and connected to earpieces to leak answers to the students. They had allegedly taken 15-20 Lakhs from many students to supply them with answers.
They had given a few students specially configured mobile phones and shared the answers through Whatsapp. A few other students were provided with sim-cards fitted vests and Bluetooth-enabled earpieces and answers to them were given through phone calls.
This resulted in the Supreme Court asking the CBSE to conduct a fresh AIPMT examination. Therefore, to prevent frauds through use of technology and other means in this fresh AIPMT examination, the CBSE laid strict guidelines prohibiting wearing full sleeve shirts, caps, scarfs or headbands.
The Islamic viewpoint
Hijab is an Islamic head covering that covers the head and the neck, but leaves the face exposed. Hijab is different from other Islamic head coverings like niqab that covers even the face, exposing only the eyes and burqa that covers whole body from head to toe including the eyes, which are covered through a mesh.
The traditional Islamic scholars and ulemas hold that head covering is mandatory for Islamic women. They argue that it is mandated in Quran itself that women should cover their heads.
Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi in “Hijab, The Muslim Womens Dress, Islamic or Cultural?” says: “The requirement of hijab is a Qur’anic command. The basic requirement is that a Muslim woman should cover her head and bosom with a khimar (a head covering), and her body with a jilbab (a loose over-garment). Of course, she can leave her face and hands open”
He further quotes Quran 24:30–31, which says: “Say to the believing women that: they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur over their bosoms.”
Explaining the verse, Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi says that “Khumur” refers to a piece of cloth that covers the head. He further adds that: “According to the commentators of the Qur’an, the women of Medina in the pre-Islamic era used to put their khumur over the head with the two ends tucked behind and tied at the back of the neck, in the process exposing their ears and neck. By saying, “place the khumur over the bosoms,” Almighty Allah ordered the women to let the two ends of their headgear extend onto their bosoms so that they conceal their ears, the neck, and the upper part of the bosom also.” Therefore, according to him, hijab, or head covering, is mandatory in Islam.
But, Ibrahim B. Syed, President of Islamic Research Foundation International, believes that hijab is not mandatory. He points out that, hijab as a terminology is not found in Quran or Hadith in the context of dress code.
Regarding the Quranic verse, he quotes Muhammad Asad, a well-known translator and commentator on Quran as saying: “The noun khimar (of which Khumur is the plural) denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of the classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer’s back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman’s tunic had a wide opening in the front, her breasts were left bare. Hence the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a khimar (a term familiar to the contemporaries of the Prophet) does not necessarily relate to the use of a khimar as such but is, rather, meant to make it clear that a woman’s breasts are not included in the concept of “what may decently be apparent” of her body and should not, therefore, be displayed.”
Therefore, Ibrahim B. Syed argues that the said verse in Quran speaks about covering of bosom and does not specifically mandate women to wear any head covering.
Hence, there is a lack of consensus within the Islamic community worldwide regarding hijab being mandatory or optional. Though most traditional maulvis and ulemas do consider hijab as mandatory, many Islamic scholars differ with this view.
The Supreme Court’s viewpoint
India is a secular state having people of various religions and faiths. The AIPMT exams faced huge irregularities and frauds due to which the Supreme Court was forced to order a re-examination.
The CBSE placed serious restrictions regarding dress codes because it was found that students had cheated using modified vests and other such things. In order to avoid any kind of cheating, be it by using sim-cards or paper chits, the CBSE prohibited any kind of head covering, head bands, belts, etc.
If the court makes an exception to one community, then another community will ask for the same exception. This would pave way for students violating the dress codes under the pretext of religious obligation and it would become impossible for the examiners to verify the veracity of such claims and prevent any fraud.
It is for this reason, the Supreme Court said: “There were serious problems and we ordered for re-conducting the exam. Now the exam has to be held properly. What if everyone wears a scarf or something else and claims it to be a religious practice? Can an examiner start inquiring into everybody’s faith?” as quoted in The Indian Express.
The court further added that: “One petition is filed saying I should be allowed to wear a cap. Another petition is filed that I should be allowed to wear a kurta since it is my religious practice. Merely because you are wearing something different, should we be allowing such a prayer?”
Therefore, considering the facts that: one, there is no consensus among Islamic scholars themselves regarding hijab; two, it would be ethically wrong if one specific community candidates are shown favor regarding their religious expression in terms of dress and other communities’ candidates are denied the same favor; three, it will be practically impossible to check frauds or cheating if the dress-codes are not imposed uniformly; four, the whole purpose of conducting fresh AIPMT examination will be defeated, if no proper measures are taken to prevent cheating; five, India being a secular state, its administrative affairs should be kept neutral and above any religious considerations; and six, as the SC points out, this is a simple issue, a matter of three hours, and hence there will not be any violation of religion (especially because there is no consensus on the issue of hijab) and students can wear hijab after finishing the exams; the Supreme Court has taken a mature and proper decision by refusing to allow wearing hijab during the AIPMT examinations.