Delhi: A young Indian woman who has been fighting for the right to be a Muslim and live with her Muslim husband told the Indian Supreme Court she desired two things: "I want my freedom" and "I want to be with my husband".
Of these two wishes, the judges granted the first. They struck a blow for personal liberty and against custody traditions, by telling Hadiya that she was free of parental control, could leave her parents' house, and resume her studies to become a homeopath.
Hadiya, 25, travelled from Kerala in the south, to the other end of the country, to the Indian capital, to win this right. She appeared before the judges because the Supreme Court expressly ordered her father to bring her so that she could speak for herself.
The ruling ended a cruel confinement. Since May 25, on the order of the Kerala High Court, she has been under house arrest at her parents' home in Kottayam, Kerala, and denied visitors. With no phone or internet access, she has been isolated and confined by her own father, KM Ashokan, who in turn was backed by the Kerala High Court.
However, the second wish - that she be allowed to live with her husband - was not granted yet because the Supreme Court is still examining Ashokan's contention that his daughter has been indoctrinated by jihadi groups and forced to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim.
His lawyer also suggested in Monday's hearing that Hadiya could be mentally unsound as there was a history of mental illness in the family.
Yet, when she appeared, dressed in a red outfit and red headscarf, Hadiya spoke in a calm, rational manner, saying she wanted her freedom and wanted to be with her husband. Her lawyer said that she was "entitled to make decisions about her own life".
Hadiya used to be known as Akhila Ashokan, a Hindu woman who converted to Islam while studying in Salem, Tamil Nadu on the Indian continent's south-eastern tip. Last year, she met a Muslim man, Shafin Jahan, and they married in December. Her livid father went to the Kerala High Court demanding that Hadiya be returned to his custody and claiming that she had been indoctrinated.
In May, the Kerala High Court nullified the wedding, saying Hadiya 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". She was forcibly taken to her parents' home.
Women's rights activists were shocked at an adult woman being treated as a minor who did not know her own mind. Jahan appealed to the Supreme Court to restore his nullified marriage.
On August 16, the Supreme Court asked the National Investigation Agency, which investigates terrorism, to report if Hadiya's conversion to Islam was free or part of a "love jihad" - a phrase used by some Hindu fringe groups to allege that Muslim men are forcing Hindu women into marriage.
In court on Monday, the NIA insisted that the case was not an isolated and simple matter of a woman making her own choices but one of many forced conversions in Kerala by jihadi groups with links to ISIS.
The NIA has investigated 89 cases of "love jihad" after hardline Hindu groups claimed the existence of an Islamist campaign to convert Hindu women through seduction and marriage. Police investigations at the time found no evidence of any organised strategy, and the claim was widely ridiculed. But since then, it began focusing on Kerala, on the Arabian Sea coast which has strong economic links to the Middle East.
The agency asked "extremely personal" questions during the interrogations, two police officers from the agency said: "Did you sleep with your husband before getting married? Did he suggest you visit Islamic shrines before marriage? Did he blackmail you before you converted to Islam?".
It found nine to be alliances planned by people linked to the Islamic State group and in two of the cases it was examining money sent from an Islamic school in Iraq to the women's bank accounts, two NIA sources said, requesting anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. The NIA plans to present evidence in all nine cases to the Supreme Court.
While the case has hogged the headlines, Hadiya's story has become a totem for right wing Hindu groups alleging that Muslim extremists are brainwashing Hindu women; for conservative groups who believe a father knows what is best for his daughter; for women's groups who are aghast at the infantalisation of a grown woman; and for liberals who wonder if inter-faith marriages are possible without the couple having to prove in court that it was not a forced union.
Women's rights groups are hoping the Court will eventually restore Hadiya's fundamental right to choose her husband and her religion.
Jahan is hoping it will overturn the annulment of his marriage. The hearing continues in January.
- with Reuters