Her hands shake as she unpins her hijab in front of the mirror, tears welled in her eyes. I grip my saffron scarf tightly in my hands, the very colour taunting me and my morals.
My morals don't matter now, do they?
They stripped my best friend and many other Muslim girls of the education they deserve because they were proud of who they were and weren't scared to show it. They called it an action in the name of equality and integrity. They sent the girls back from the gates of the college just because they wore a hijab.
"Faiza, I-" I start, but she shoots me a glare through the mirror, silencing me. I could do nothing as the headmaster demeaned her, calling her a radical because she abided by her religion. They said that wearing a hijab was affecting the secularism of our country, yet, he paid no heed to us as we chanted the name of our Hindu God with saffron scarves around our necks, further cementing how they were biased against Islam.
I toy with the sacred thread on my wrist. I remember the day my mother tied it on my hand, binding symbolic protection. 'God will protect you,' she had said, her Hindu beliefs strong as ever. They're erasing who we are. They are erasing the secularism of India.
I am pulled out of my thoughts as I feel her scrunched hijab fall on my lap, the dark blue cloth flowing with the saffron scarf in my arms: equal and afflicting no change. It always felt so natural to be equal friends: no religion or cultural difference between us. We were always there for each other, regardless of whom we prayed to.
"They are obliterating my culture," she says simply, no emotions evident in her voice.
"You'll always be Faiza Ahmed, no matter who says otherwise. You will wear your hijab, and you will own being a Muslim-"
"That's not the matter, Vrinda," she says, running her hand through the fabrics in my arms, "When we refused, the college threatened to ruin our careers. The government is saying that my religion is infringing the secularity of the country. My country," her fingers dig into the dark blue, "Why can't I be who I want to be without them interfering in my identity?" she asks, closing her eyes as a tear rolls down her cheek.
I remain silent, thinking how the government said that private educational institutes had the right to change their uniforms—even if the change overstepped the boundaries of your heritage. Even if it trespassed all beliefs you had been inculcated with. Even if it conflicted with who you are.
"Did India evolve and progress to just inhabit Hindus? Why didn't they call you out when you marched with these-" she tugs on the saffron cloth, "-around your necks?"
"They're biased, Faiza. I feel ashamed to say this, but they don't see my religion infringing the country's constitution," I confess quietly, making her nod.
"Exactly," she replies, running a hand through her long braided hair. "I can see my future burn in front of my eyes. I see our country on the edge of apartheid against Muslims, marginalizing and miniaturizing our existence. What's next, hmm?" she questions, standing up and throwing her hands, "I won't be allowed to work somewhere because I'm Muslim? My hijab will be stripped from my body because it trifles with the integrity of India?!" she yells angrily, and I let her vent her feelings.
"They didn't let us into the college, Vrinda. They sent us on our way to unawareness from the gates of education. Education," she pronounces and scoffs, "Isn't education supposed to bring us to equality? How is education differentiating from my hijab-covered head to yours?"
I stand up, "It isn't education, Faiza," I say, the saffron scarf falling on the ground as I hold her hijab up in my hands, "It's the government. It's the country. You are not unequal, do you understand? Your religion matters just as much as mine does, and it doesn't make you different from me—or any other person, for that matter," I coax, making her sigh.
"I feel helpless," she whispers, a sob escaping her. I step forward and wrap my arms around her, "I am sorry that my country failed you," I apologize as she cries, making my heart clench in pain.
A sudden notification pings in her phone, making her pull away and wipe her tears. She takes it out of her pocket, her eyes widening at the screen. "Oh my God-" she exclaims happily, a smile plastered on her face, but it transforms into a frown the second it appears.
"What is it?" I ask, gripping her hand to provide comfort.
"They are letting us back in the college," she says, her eyes lowered.
"What?!" I exclaim, "Isn't that great?!" I continue, enveloping her in a hug.
"It's really not," she murmurs, pulling away.
"What's wrong, Faiza?" I ask as she purses her lips.
"They're seating us in separate classrooms," she clenches her jaw. My eyes widen in horror, and I stagger back onto the bed.
Somehow, it feels like this is worse.
It is legally sanctioned apartheid.
"No," I whisper, and she sits beside me, her arm slinging over my shoulder.
"They have marginalised us. They're discriminating in a country where we have a right to equality," her eyes once again well with tears. "I-" she stammers, "I don't know what to do!" she cries out.
"Faiza," I call, making her step away. I smile at her, incompetently wrapping her hijab around her face, "This is who you are and will always be. I might not be able to change how my country perceives you, but I'll sure as heck try my best," I determine, making a smile erupt on her face.
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