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Hijab-ily Ever After: Liberated, Strong, Empowered And NOT Oppressed

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By Ayesha Nusrat:

It’s been over a month since I decided to become a Hijabi (one who wears a headscarf and adheres to modest clothing), and before your minds race to label me as the poster girl for oppressed womanhood everywhere; let me tell you as a woman (holding a Masters degree in human rights, and a graduate degree in psychology) why I see this as the most liberating experience ever.

I must state that my experiences haven’t been a walk on the red carpet either. Yes, I do get the expected whole range of strange looks, stares, and glances wherever I go. The most prized of the lot are the ones greatly accentuated with raised eyebrows which I gain when I am on the metro with the headscarf on, reading one of my favourite books, “Female Chauvinistic Pig — Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture”. (It is by Ariel Levy and it is a fascinating read, if anyone is interested). People always seem intrigued to know how I speak the local language fluently as I must have surely come from some Muslim country (2 out of 3 times, it has to be Afghanistan) to wear such a thing. So, I decided that the next time I am asked such amusing questions; I am going to show them my finger — the one with the indelible voting-ink which marks my identity as a patriotic Indian.

Apart from patriarchy, I assure you, Delhi summer will top the list of any hijabi’s archrivals. So at 45 degrees when everything around is sweating, smouldering and burning; I am bound to be asked, “Don’t you feel hot in that thing?” Even if it is the girl at the super market whom I’ll never see again, I almost feel like I am representing Islam and the perceived state of oppression my hijabi sisters are in with the answer I give her. I am pretty sure that no matter what I say, she will hear “My male overlords force me to wear this sweltering chauvinistic, suppressive piece of clothing against my will for I am my husband’s / father’s property much like a cow.

Hot or not (referring both to the weather and the fashion quotient), I believe my hijab liberates me. I know the media and the western world portray hijab as the placard for either forced silence or fundamentalist regimes; but personally, I found it to be neither. I should add here that my parents were pleasantly surprised when I announced on my birthday this year that I am a hijabi henceforth – meaning that I wasn’t coerced into taking it up.

In a society which embraces, if not enthusiastically persuades, uncovering – how can it be oppressive if I decided to cover up, independently? I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women. I refuse to see how a woman’s significance is rated according to their looks and the clothes they wear. I am also absolutely certain that the skewed perception of women’s equality as the right to bear our breasts in public would only contribute to our own objectification. I look forward to a whole new day when true equality will be had with women not needing to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.

It’s no news that many modern, educated women are opting to wear the headscarf and that it is seen as one strong symbol of feminism, asserting an alternate mode of female empowerment – political and empowering in its own right. I see it as a way to affirm that my personal spirituality, feminism and personal space is not for public consumption. The bottom-line is, I cover my head, not my brain.

I know the voting ink will fade away in the next couple of months and so, the next time when my fellow customer at the chemists’ comments “Your country, Indonesia is a very beautiful country”, I will sing the Indian national anthem loud and clear.

You must be to comment.
  1. Karmanye Thadani

    It is indeed an interesting article, and yes, India belongs as much to someone sporting a headscarf as it does to someone with a ’tilak’ on his forehead, and it certainly belongs more to men like Shahid Abdul Hamid than someone like Madhuri Gupta, who was an ISI agent. But here, I must say that a distinction must be made between a headscarf and a burqa, the latter being a piece of clothing that prevents women from having a career or interacting even in a healthy fashion with men in the modern society, and is arguably not even enjoined by the Quran, for it makes no mention of covering the face or wearing a garment black in colour. A headscarf, for me, can be seen like a Sikh turban and is not necessarily oppressive. I am a non-Muslim but I don’t carry even the vaguest prejudice against Islam as a faith or Muslims as a community and am even passionate about dispelling anti-Muslim prejudices. Having said that, I am also not an uncritical admirer of Islam (or any faith, for that matter, including Hinduism, my own faith), nor a purblind sympathizer of the wrongdoers from the Muslim community. In that spirit, without the slightest intention to offend anyone, I may say that while the idea of covering one’s head to prevent objectification by men is well-intentioned, I don’t see it being borne out by facts. Perverts have raped burqa-clad ladies too, and a man like me will never even dream of teasing a girl in a bikini, raping being a far cry. Also, headscarves are a major issue when it comes to Muslim girls’ swimming lessons.

  2. Karmanye Thadani

    The article is interesting and makers a nice read. Indeed, India belongs as much to a girl sporting a headscarf as to a man sporting a tilak on his forehead, and it definitely belongs more to people like Param Vir Chakra Shahid Abdul Hamid than it does to people like Madhuri Gupta, who was an ISI agent. That being said, one must distinguish between a headscarf and a burqa, the latter arguably not even being ordained by Islam, since the Quran nowhere talks of covering the face or wearing a black garment, and the burqa prevents a woman from having a career or being a part of mainstream society in the modern age. The headscarf, on the other hand, is seen by me as a Muslim female equivalent of the turban for Sikh males.

    I am a non-Muslim, but I love many things about Islam as a faith, and I am even passionate about dispelling anti-Muslim prejudices. Having said that, I am not an uncritical admirer of any religion, including my own (which is Hinduism), nor do I exhibit purblind sympathy to wrongdoers from any religious community, be it my own or any other. In that very spirit, without seeking to offend anyone, I would say that the idea that covering one’s head prevents objectification, though well-intentioned, isn’t really accurate in my opinion. Perverts are known to have raped burqa-clad ladies, while a man like me won’t even dream of even teasing a girl in a bikini, though broadly, I do support modest dressing as a principle but personally, don’t regard headscarves as necessary for the same. Also, for Muslim girls who impose headscarves on their daughters (which I consider completely wrong, but I know that not every girl wearing a headscarf has been forced to do so), it becomes an issue when it comes to their swimming lessons.

  3. nvragn nvragn

    I wish more people thought like you!

    Any how, being a hijabi, I can identify with Ayesha’s feelings when encountered with people regarding me as an object of curiosity. They are amazed to learn that I am an Indian. I find it sometimes funny, sometimes irritating. But I always try to keep in mind when dealing with such reactions, that I am adding more diversity to our nations essential unity in diversity essence; from amritdhari sikh women to nuns, from women dressed in western attires to women still casting a ghoonghat. Once an old sikh priest complimented me on my modest attire, I was so surprised that I thought maybe he mistook me for a sikh girl (amritdhari), so I told him that I am a muslim. To which he replied that my religion was of no consequence to him, he just wished that Indian youngsters would dress more in terms with Indian norms and traditions of modesty. That is one heart warming memory that I have that an orthodox looking gentleman was able to perceive beyond my religion because frankly I have met loads of communal westernized english speaking blokes who can’t see beyond the piece of cloth I use to cover my head.

    I started covering my hair, when I was into my post-graduate studies, it noticeably helped me avoid all the unnecessary attention heaped on me as a girl. It helped me travel in the 2nd class train compartments on my overnight journeys from University town to hometown and back with lesser unpleasant incidents. Even on the roads I was subject to a huge reduction in eve-teasing. Moreover, it helped me choose my life partner with more confidence in the future tenability and success of our relationship because I understood that my personality and my intellect which is exuded no matter what I wear and which is only going to improve unlike my looks, was more of a factor in my dear friend’s decision to propose to me.

    There have been many unpleasant incidents as well just because people refuse to look beyond their prejudices and stereotypes, eg. some of the new people that I meet in my daily life are taken by surprise that I am a PhD, some times they also kindly inform me that they know of many muslims who don’t practice such a self-oppressive trend; some people in India ( I have found more tolerance outside India) have even made highly inflammatory communal comments and ugly gestures. It is really disturbing that most so called middle class, educated people are so narrow minded while the poor and uneducated masses of India are wiser, more humane and secular (speaking from personal experience of 27 years).

    P.S. Thanks Ayesha for this very well written article and for projecting a common perception among hijabis in the mainstream.

  4. nvragn nvragn

    I wish more people thought like you!

    Any how, being a hijabi, I can identify with Ayesha’s feelings when
    encountered with people regarding me as an object of curiosity. They are
    amazed to learn that I am an Indian. I find it sometimes funny,
    sometimes irritating. But I always try to keep in mind when dealing with
    such reactions, that I am adding more diversity to our nations
    essential unity in diversity essence; from amritdhari sikh women to
    nuns, from women dressed in western attires to women still casting a
    ghoonghat. Once an old sikh priest complimented me on my modest attire, I
    was so surprised that I thought maybe he mistook me for a sikh girl
    (amritdhari), so I told him that I am a muslim. To which he replied that
    my religion was of no consequence to him, he just wished that Indian
    youngsters would dress more in terms with Indian norms and traditions of
    modesty. That is one heart warming memory that I have that an orthodox
    looking gentleman was able to perceive beyond my religion because
    frankly I have met loads of communal westernized english speaking blokes
    who can’t see beyond the piece of cloth I use to cover my head.

    I started covering my hair, when I was into my post-graduate studies, it
    noticeably helped me avoid all the unnecessary attention heaped on me
    as a girl. It helped me travel in the 2nd class train compartments on my
    overnight journeys from University town to hometown and back with
    lesser unpleasant incidents. Even on the roads I was subject to a huge
    reduction in eve-teasing. Moreover, it helped me choose my life partner
    with more confidence in the future tenability and success of our
    relationship because I understood that my personality and my intellect
    which is exuded no matter what I wear and which is only going to improve
    unlike my looks, was more of a factor in my dear friend’s decision to
    propose to me.

    There have been many unpleasant incidents as well just because people
    refuse to look beyond their prejudices and stereotypes, eg. some of the
    new people that I meet in my daily life are taken by surprise that I am a
    PhD, some times they also kindly inform me that they know of many
    muslims who don’t practice such a self-oppressive trend; some people in
    India ( I have found more tolerance outside India) have even made highly
    inflammatory communal comments and ugly gestures. It is really
    disturbing that most so called middle class, educated people are so
    narrow minded while the poor and uneducated masses of India are wiser,
    more humane and secular (speaking from personal experience of 27 years).

    P.S. Thanks Ayesha for this very well written article and for projecting a common perception among hijabis in the mainstream.
     

  5. i.s.

    love it! 🙂

  6. Muneer

    Like the article .., and appreciate very much .Wearing hijab inspired by words of god, to show to god that i want to be humble believer, will make much more difference than liberation and empowerment because these are feelings to wards other humans…but the actual feeling is to the god.

  7. Saloni

    Hey.
    Your choice is your choice & I don’t have any right to judge you.
    But why I’m vehemently against the hijab is because not all women are as fortunate as you are. Not all Muslim women have a choice, like you did, to choose to wear the hijab or the burqa. It was their parents, or their husbands, which forced them to take it up. Or, more commonly, it was the culture & religion they had to follow because they were God fearing. So the question of freedom of choice did not turn up for the MAJORITY of women.
    Also, I believe the points you expressed in a paragraph here go against feminism. To quote you :

    I am also absolutely certain that the skewed perception of women’s equality as the right to bear our breasts in public would only contribute to our own objectification. I look forward to a whole new day when true equality will be had with women not needing to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.What do you think?

    You think that breast displaying would most certainly lead to objectification of women, which is true, and so they should dress modestly. But don’t you think that rather than accepting it resignedly as you have-we need to change the mindset of the men rather than take precautions ourselves. Also, you said women display themselves to get attention.
    Have you ever thought that women who wear skimpy clothes may actually like wearing them just as you like wearing the hijab & it may not be grabbing attention for them? You wear what you like and don’t want to be judged. But at the same time you judge women who wear clothing opposite to yours. That’s irrational.

    Also, if women wear hijabs to protect themselves against assualt, it only indicates that our society has been a total failure in controlling criminals of assaults to such an extent that women couldn’t even walk out in the open with uncovered faces.

  8. Shilpi

    ‘CHOICE” is an illusion here dear Ayesha…U are not more than a victim of social conditioning…..Hijab symbolises the control of society over the freedom of women that has taken deep roots in their psyche, which has altered their perception to accept it as their identity. By calling hijab their identity, women reduce their worth to a piece of cloth, bringing entire focus on their bodies. This is no different from using a woman’s naked body to sell products. The blatant sexualisation of body in both cases perceives women nothing more than source of temptation, pleasure and sin. However, the projection of such views is different in conservative and free societies – where one is exposed unnecessarily, the other is hid behind layers of unnecessary clothes. In both the societies, the choice is not the woman’s.
    Slaves ask to better their ” slavement “situation.
    YOU is wearing something that is used to oppress women, that many women are forced to wear (yOU may not be one of them). But wearing that very attire,you state that you don’t want to be oppressed for wearing something which is actually used to oppress a lot of women!!!!!!!!!
    To me it just basically says: “I am already oppressed, don’t oppress me any further. Don’t oppress me for being oppressed.”
    I need emancipation so that I can wear chains and serve my master without being called a slave!!!!!
    Equlity is Anti structuralist. It’s egalitarian= what applies to one applies to all. Hijab does NOT apply to men. It’s is only for women to be seen as woman Freedom is freedom from social conventions or traditional ideas. Hijab is a social tradition. You can’t argue a women is liberated from traditional ideas, BY a traditional idea
    I m free to think its ridiculous, and you can be free to wear it or not, its up to you.!!!!!

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