From Examination Centres to Passport Offices: The ‘Humiliation’ and ‘Identity Stripping’ of Muslim Women

Sidra Fatima,

New Delhi: Muslim women feel their religious freedom is under threat in the wake of rising Hindu nationalism across the country. The increasing incidents of hijab removals from public and governmental settings, justified under the guise of security concerns and uniformity, have emboldened their belief. For them, it’s a “systemic discrimination” and “gross violation” of their rights.

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They say this disturbing trend is widening over the past few years — making the society turning hostile toward their cultural and religious identity. There is “scrutiny” and “prejudice” in public spaces, which are supposed to be safe and inclusive. Alleged aggressive rhetoric and biased policies of the ruling party have led to “more overt and widespread harassment and exclusion”.

Ifrah Ghayas, a 23-year-old resident of Jamshedpur who studies at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, narrated an incident — which she recently witnessed at a local Passport Seva Kendra.

“I saw a man being asked to remove his skullcap for a photograph. He argued that his previous photo was in the skullcap, his claim was dismissed — citing new rules. They told him his skullcap would hide his hair — increasing the chances of tampering with his identification. However, as far as I know, hair is not important for identification. I sensed right there that I too would be asked to remove my hijab,” she said.

Religious and cultural identity has of late made Muslims vulnerable, she alleged, adding that social norms and state machineries exert pressure on the community women to conform to a narrow interpretation of national identity, making it increasingly risky for them to wear hijab or veil at public places. This “alarming trend”, she said, not only “violates” individual freedoms but also “erodes” the pluralistic fabric of Indian society.

“I had priorly gone through the rulebook, including the Consulate General Of India, wherein it was clearly stated that covering of head for religious reasons is allowed. They agreed to click my photograph the way I like; however, they cautioned me that my application would get rejected if I didn’t remove my headscarf and I would have to redo everything,” she said.

These incidents are not isolated or limited, she said and added, it occurs in passport offices, examination centres, airport security checks and even school and college campuses.

Sumaiya Khatoon, a psychology student, was asked to remove her hijab at an examination centre for identification purposes.

“I was told that I wouldn’t be able to appear in the examination if I didn’t get my photograph clicked properly. It was back in 2023 when everyone was writing their CUET papers. It was already late, and I feared missing my paper; therefore, I immediately complied and removed my hijab in front of four men for the sake of my career. Only later, I realised that I had rights — which I was deprived of exercising,” she alleged.

‘Systemic Discrimination’

The increase in such incidents, the women said, coincides with the rise of Hindu nationalist sentiments under the current dispensation. The political climate in the country, according to them, has “rationalised discriminatory practices” against religious minorities — particularly Muslim women — who “bear the disproportionate targeting”.

The hijab ban in Karnataka in 2022 and the Chembur College controversy highlight this trend, further “legitimising public discrimination”. “It has given rise to an environment where Muslim women are often humiliated, forcing them to compromise their religious beliefs,” they argued.

While Sumaiya said she felt humiliated and disrespected while removing hijab in front of dozens of men, Ifrah added the passport office officials provided her a small cabin to get her picture clicked.

Psychological and Emotional Toll

They said the psychological and emotional toll on them is profound. “Forced hijab removal often robs women of their agency, dignity and sense of belonging. It reinforces negative stereotypes and erodes social cohesion,” they added.

Both Ifrah and Sumaiya claimed they felt violated and marginalised. “It wasn’t just about removing a piece of cloth; it was about stripping me of my identity and self-respect,” said the former, adding that she began wearing a hijab only a couple of years ago.

Andaleeb Hussain, 24, who was once asked to remove her hijab before entering into an examination centre, said, “Facing this is extremely disturbing for the women who have been wearing hijab from a very young age.”

Voices of Defiance

Despite the challenges, many Muslim women are rising against such alleged injustices. Human rights activists and community leaders are demanding stricter enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and greater awareness of the rights of religious minorities.

According to them, security and social harmony can only be ensured by respecting diversity and the rights of every individual.
“At an examination centre, a female staff asked me to remove my hijab to confirm I am not carrying any electronic device — hiding it in my hair. I firmly told her this should have been done during the security check. They started forcing me to remove it, but I refused. Eventually, we agreed that a female staff member would check my hair in a private room, and I then was allowed to enter the examination hall. It was embarrassing as everyone looked at me like I was at fault,” said Andaleeb, who is a final-year law student.

“I know if I hadn’t been firm, they would have forced me to remove my hijab in front of all the students. I wonder how many other students have had to remove their hijabs,” she said.

The alleged persecution of Muslim women has significantly worsened in the recent past. Back in July 2021, an app called ‘Sulli Deals’ surfaced where women were subject to a vicious form of harassment. The pictures of Muslim women were publically displayed on this app — describing each one as the “deal of the day” and allowing men to bid on these profiles.

These women were prominent professionals, including journalists, social workers, students and social media influencers. The app was hosted on GitHub, where nothing was sold but sought to name and shame the women.

The application caused a public outcry, with Github suspending the account eventually. However, the Delhi Police allegedly reluctantly investigated into the incident.

Later, another similar application — Bulli Bai — surfaced on the same platform, carrying images of Muslim women, including those in their 60s and 70s, with derogatory content.

Public anger was reignited, more so because not a single arrest was made in the case of Sulli Deals. Under tremendous pressure from the netizens and multiple complaints, the police managed to arrest six persons in connection with both apps. All of them have since been released on bail.

These incidents, from app-based harassment to forced hijab removal, among others, allegedly reveal a “serious pattern of discrimination and hostility faced by Muslim women in India”. “Forced” hijab removals both in public and governmental settings underline “deep-rooted discrimination”.

“I wanted to cry. Even my relatives who wear abayas only had to expose their ears to get their passports, so I knew it was not at all necessary to remove my hijab. I was about to retort, but my father, who was already yelled at by another official, told me to just give in. I was red, but managed to stay calm for my father, who signalled that arguing wouldn’t help since these officials always get their way,” stated Zaina Shahid Khan, who faced a similar “discrimination” as Ifrah in the passport office.

“My father did what he thought was right; for him, it might just be a piece of cloth. But a man can never understand how it feels to remove that one piece of cloth from your head. It feels like they were robbing me of my identity,” she shared.