India's supreme court on Monday restored the liberty of a young woman who was ordered confined to her parents' home after they claimed she had been radicalised because she converted to Islam and later married a Muslim man.
The judges' decision was delivered after hearing testimony from Hadiya Shefin, 24. The court had asked her father, K M Ashokan, to bring her to the capital so that judges could listen to her in person instead of hearing only his views
Ms Shefin had been kept isolated in her parents in Kottayam, Kerala since May 25 on the orders of the high court in the state, which also annulled her marriage. She was denied visitors and access to a phone and the internet.
"I want my freedom," Ms Shefin told the supreme court judges on Monday as she answered their questions in calm, measured tones. She also said repeatedly that she wanted to see her husband, Shefin Jahan.
The judges did not make a decision on that request, but ordered that her forced confinement and her father’s custody of her should end and that she should be allowed to continue her studies to become a homeopath. They scheduled the next hearing of the case in January, when they will consider whether the annulment of her marriage should be overturned.
Ms Shefin's case has been cited as an example by right-wing Hindu groups who allege that Islamist extremists in Kerala have been brainwashing Hindu women into marrying Muslim men as part of a "love jihad" and by conservatives who believe a father knows what is best for his daughter. On the other side, women’s activists say it reflects social bias and control of women, while liberals worry that inter-faith marriages will no longer be possible without the threat of legal action.
India 'love jihad' claims fuel Hindu-Muslim tensions
Ms Shefin converted from Hinduism to Islam in 2015 while studying in Salem in Tamil Nadu state and changed her name from Akhila Ashokan. She married Mr Jahan in December last year after they met through a matrimonial website. Her father then went to the Kerala high court to demand that his daughter be placed in his custody, claiming that she had been indoctrinated.
The high court annulled Ms Shefin's marriage in May, calling it a "sham", and bundled her off to her parents’ home despite her express wish not to return. The decision drew protests from women’s rights activists who said they were shocked that an adult woman was being treated as a minor who did not know her own mind and was being confined to her father’s custody.
The high court judges said Ms Shefin was “weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways” and that “her marriage being the most important decision in her life, can also be taken only with the active involvement of her parents”.
Mr Jahan appealed to the supreme court in July to restore his marriage, calling the annulment "an insult to the independence of the women of India".
On August 16, the supreme court asked the National Investigation Agency, which investigates terrorism cases, to look into whether Ms Shefin’s conversion to Islam was free or part of a “love jihad”.
The agency told the court on Monday that the case was not an isolated one, nor a simple matter of a woman making her own choices, but one of many "forced conversions" in Kerala by extremist groups with links to ISIL. It alleged that Mr Jahan had been in contact with ISIL recruiters.
Shyam Divan, lawyer for Ms Shefin's father, said there was a “huge organisational apparatus operating in Kerala ... to radicalise young impressionable minds".
The case has triggered a nationwide debate about individual liberty, parental control and "love jihad". Rahul Easwar, a social activist who managed to briefly film Ms Shefin inside her father's house, said in August that she was "being treated like a sick woman and being tortured".
His video ends abruptly as Ms Shefin says: “If my head or any part of my body hits somewhere and I die…’’
Her insistence that she is a Muslim and wants to be with her husband has been drowned out by all the groups who have weighed in with their own opinions.
Before boarding a flight to New Delhi on Monday, she told reporters: "I am a Muslim. I was not forced. I want to be with my husband.”