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Catholic nun barred, a step backward for women’s freedom


Looking into the eyepiece of the microscope is a nun of a Catholic order from outside St. Louis -archival image.

It’s an almost funny story, if it didn't have a twist in the tale, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

A Catholic nun was barred from a medical entrance examination, the All-India Pre-Medical Entrance Test, or AIPMT, last week. She was wearing her religious habit, a nun's veil and a cross around her neck. Sister Seba was not stopped on religious grounds. Catholic nuns are mostly, treated with respect in Kerala. Rather, she was barred because of large-scale cheating during these exams.

L'Affaire dress code has caused several controversies. Apparently, it has been introduced and enforced, as several candidates, not the nun, were found using highly innovative methods to sneak in vital material to get past the entrance exams for the highly coveted medical college seats. Earlier last week, the Kerala High Court allowed two Muslim girls to wear a headscarf and full-sleeve dresses for the exam on condition that an invigilator could frisk them if required.

But, unrelated to this, a huge scam ensued. Amid allegations that the test paper was leaked and that students had sneaked in sophisticated electronic gadgets to enable them to cheat, the Education Board cancelled the previously held examinations. They then issued a notification informing candidates that they were strictly prohibited from wearing items like ‘belts, caps, scarves, etc’ into the examination hall. The Supreme Court refused to allow AIPMT aspirants to wear a hijab saying ‘your faith won’t disappear’ if it is not worn on a particular day.

While one can sympathize with the invigilators and the enforcing authorities who have a really tough time preventing large-scale, almost mass-copying by several students intent on getting through by fair means or foul, the entire matter could have been handled more tactfully.

The nun in question, Sr. Seba asked if she could sit in a separate, private room to take her exams but was refused permission. So she returned to her convent without sitting the exam. It means a waste of a whole year for her and the Muslim women students similarly barred because of their hijabs.

It’s quite a dilemma. In India we have separate personal laws for minorities. Muslims, Christians and Parsis have their own marriage, inheritance and other personal laws. Our constitution gave them those rights. The demand for a uniform civil code has been growing louder. So the debate on secularism and minority rights and special privileges continues.

In my opinion frisking the veiled women before they went in would have served the purpose and avoided all the unnecessary angst and unwanted bad press.

What strikes me as funny, is that many friends, Hindu, Christian or Parsi would never raise an eyebrow if confronted by a veiled Christian or Jain nun. It's the norm. Something that people are comfortable with. But, in a country where, generally, religious folk are given more than their due share of respect, considering the recurring religious related scandals which pop up with alarming regularity, the hijab or headscarf or burkha definitely raises more objections than a veiled nun.

We need to introspect, to ask ourselves serious questions about why this is so. I think sooner or later the legal battle will be won. We are now moving to separate buses, taxis and trains for our commuting women. Separate examination halls for women – veiled or unveiled – shouldn't be a huge step away. I think it’s a step backward for women's freedom. But I think most women I know, except for fiercely feminist friends, prefer to be safe rather than sorry.

It's quite a sad comment on our society really. Both in terms of women's rights and in terms of accepting the rights of 'the other'.

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