On Monday this week, a young Muslim woman faced the Indian Supreme Court, finally allowed to speak after being imprisoned for converting to Islam and marrying a man of her choice. After months of petitions, news coverage, and speeches from everyone but her, she said laid out her demand clearly: “I want freedom.”
In 2016, Hadiya, a 24-year old woman from a Hindu household who was pursuing training in homeopathic medicine, converted to Islam. Several months later, she married the man of her choice, Shafin Jahan, a Muslim from her home state of Kerala. Hearing news of his daughter’s conversation and subsequent marriage, Hadiya’s father filed a police case alleging his daughter had been the victim of “love jihad.” Six months ago, the Kerala High Court ruled in favor of Hadiya’s father, declared her consensual marriage null and void, and placed Hadiya — an adult woman — in the custody of her father.
Hadiya had been held against her will at her father’s house since May until this past Monday, when the Indian Supreme Court, after finally allowing her to speak, ruled that she could return to her medical college — under the condition that the college’s dean be appointed her “local guardian.”
Feminists across India have been protesting the court’s treatment of Hadiya, and the case has inspired serious debate about women’s autonomy, state persecution of Muslims, and the politics of conversion in contemporary India. I’ve been covering Hadiya’s story here at Feministing in the context of these debates, but it’s not just an Indian controversy. Hadiya’s story sheds light on issues — state regulation of women’s bodies, Islamophobia, and racism — important to us in the United States as we continue to protest American state violence against Muslims worldwide.
As the Hindu right has ascended in India, so have allegations of “love Jihad.” The panic over this non-existent, alleged conspiracy whereby Muslim men seduce and then “forcibly convert” Hindu women, has spread from right-wing propaganda to state investigations policing interfaith marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men. Hadiya’s case has been taken up by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) under an anti-terrorism framework.
The stereotype of Muslim men as sexually violent threats to the “purity” of Hindu women has a long history of India and is pronounced in the rhetoric of the Indian right. The Indian government has also used stereotypes about the aggression of Muslim men to deny the agency of Muslim women. For example, while the right-wing government cynically championed the recent Indian Supreme Court verdict against triple talaq (a form of instant divorce previously allowed to Muslim men under Indian law), it was actually Muslim women’s collective power which had brought about the decision.
As numerous feminists have pointed out, the painful irony of the Hindu right’s supposed championing of Muslim women is that these are the very politicians and organizations responsible for horrifying, and deeply misogynist, anti-Muslim threats and violence. The ruling party in India, the right-wing BJP, is known for using anti-Muslim hate speech, including one BJP party worker’s grotesque threats that Muslim women’s bodies should be disinterred and raped.
This is sadly not an empty threat, considering the widespread sexualized atrocities committed against Muslim women in the 2002 Gujarat riots, a series of brutal anti-Muslim attacks in which current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was likely complicit. A recent sting operation revealed right-wing Hindu leaders bragging on tape about spreading the myth of love Jihad and using false allegations of rape to terrorize Muslim communities and violate women’s autonomy.
From Family to Court
While all people over the age of 18 are legal adults under the Indian constitution, the legal system has often been a tool of maintaining patriarchal control.
Numerous Indian feminists have critiqued the social conception that a woman is the ward of her father, who passes her to a husband of the family’s choice. Local caste governing bodies, known as khap panchayats, are often criticized for upholding patriarchal control and limiting women’s constitutionally-entitled right to autonomous citizenship. But the legal system, too, is complicit, with recent decisions about rape reinforcing the idea that women cannot be raped by their husbands or deserve rape for pushing socially-defined boundaries. Furthermore, regulations of women’s autonomy and mobility are highly tied to religion and caste, with most honor killings actually being a murderous response to intercaste unions.
In Hadiya’s case, the Kerala High Court violated Hadiya’s rights by citing the”Indian tradition” of patriarchal family control, rather than abiding by the Indian tradition of robust constitutional protections for women and minorities.
The Supreme Court’s decision to allow Hadiya to return to her college is heartening. Still, it’s disturbing that the Court even allowed Hadiya to be imprisoned by her father in the first place; that it’s taking seriously allegations of “mental kidnapping” and “indoctrination” rather than accepting that an adult woman has the right to choose her religion; and that it took months for Hadiya’s voice to even be heard in court.
Most disturbing of all is the fact that, even after returning to her college, Hadiya may still not be permitted to meet her husband. The Supreme Court has placed her under the guardianship of the principal of her college, who has stated to the media that he has the power to decide who she meets — and he is unlikely to permit her to meet her husband. Meanwhile, the college’s housing, like many such dorms for women across India, has draconian rules, including mandatory 10:45pm lights out and only 1 hour daily access to cell phones.
As feminist group Pinjra Tod (“Break the Cages”) writes, this is one more example of how women’s educational institutions in India often reinforce patriarchal authority by severely restricting women’s mobility.
“I need the freedom to meet the person I love,” Hadiya said about the restrictive hostel rules. “I’m asking for my fundamental rights.”
“I want to remain true to my faith”
For many sitting reading about Hadiya’s case in the United States, it’s easy to dismiss the proceedings as the distant happenings of a “Third World” country where women’s rights aren’t as “developed” as in the United States. This, of course, is baloney. The regulation of women’s bodies is a fundamental form of political control across contexts, apparent too in American Islamophobia.
Appeals to white women’s supposed “purity” has long been a tactic of American racism. We see it in the historical use of alleged sexual sleights against white women as justifications for the lynching of black men. Most recently, we saw it in Dylann Roof’s use of white femininity to justify his horrific, racist 2015 murders.
We can see a similar sexualized racism against Muslim men today, as politicians appeal to sensationalized tales of sexual violence to fuel Islamophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment. And of course, anyone who witnessed the American Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is familiar with the racist and infantilizing claim (sometimes perpetuated by feminists) that Muslim women need the American government to save them. Just as right-wing Hindu groups campaign as champions of Muslim women while also sponsoring violence against them, the American government has historically “championed” Muslim women’s rights—while enabling abuse of them at home and dropping bombs on them abroad.
In the war for cultural supremacy, women’s bodies are made into battlefields. That’s why it’s even more important to listen when women like Hadiya, whom an entire state machinery has attempted to silence, speak. Try as her father might to prevent Hadiya from speaking in open court on Tuesday, and despite the uncertainty of her future, Hadiya’s voice rang clear.
“I have endured mental harassment and been in unlawful custody for 11 months. I want to go back to my college and continue my education…I want to remain true to my faith, ” she told the court in Malayalam, translated by a lawyer. “I want freedom.”