Akhila, 24, who converted to Islam in 2016 and took a new name, Hadiya, arrives at the airport in Kochi, India. Photo: Reuters / Sivaram V
Akhila, 24, who converted to Islam in 2016 and took a new name, Hadiya, arrives at the airport in Kochi, India. Photo: Reuters / Sivaram V

India’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a 25-year-old woman’s freedom of choice, setting aside a lower court’s order to annul her marriage because of allegations that she had been misled and brainwashed into adopting Islam as her religion.

The apex court said its decision was based on Kerala native Hadiya’s statement that she had converted to Islam from Hinduism of her own free will. The court also observed that the Kerala High Court should not have annulled the marriage in a habeas corpus petition in 2017.

“Consent and personal choices are at the core of plurality in the country. We will do anything to safeguard it. We can’t put a test of reasonableness to marriage choices. That’s not the job of the court,” the Supreme Court bench headed by Indian Chief Justice Dipak Misra observed during hearings preceding its order.

“Marriage, plurality and individual choices should be zealously guarded from state intervention,” the court said.

The habeas corpus petition in the Kerala High Court was first filed by Hadiya’s father in January 2016, but after she appeared before the court and said she wanted to study Islam, the petition was disposed. Seven months later he filed a second petition saying that Hadiya, who changed her name from Akhila, could be married off in an attempt to transport her out of the country to join the Islamic State terrorist group.

After several months of hearings, the court ordered that Hadiya be kept under surveillance, and later told her to move into a college hostel. That same evening, Hadiya married Shafin Jahan, a 27-year-old Muslim, but her move angered the court.

“As per the Indian tradition, the custody of an unmarried daughter is with her parents, until she is properly married off,” the court observed, sending Hadiya to a ladies’ hostel and denying her access to a mobile phone. The court also ordered a probe into Jahan.

Five months later in May 2017, the court nullified Hadiya’s marriage and sent her back to the custody of her parents. The court said Hadiya was “weak and vulnerable,” and had no clear plans for her life or future. It said that “radical groups influencing and converting young girls” were behind Hadiya’s conversion to Islam.

In August last year, Jahan appealed to the Supreme Court against the order. The apex court initially ordered a probe by the terror watchdog National Investigation Agency into the case and sent Hadiya back to her homeopathic medical school in Salem, Kerala.

During a hearing last November, Hadiya reiterated that she wanted to continue being a Muslim and that she had married Jahan of her own will.

In its judgment on Thursday, the Supreme Court said the NIA could continue its probe into alleged “forced conversions” of young women, but it asked the agency not to probe Hadiya’s marriage.

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