I began to wear my hijab when I was in class 6 with an intense desire to obey Allah. With the passing of years, my curiosity to know my religion grew and the more I learnt about it, the more I wanted to follow it.
So one fine day I told my parents that I wanted to wear the burqa. My parents thought that I was too young to bear the burden of stereotypes on my shoulders, but this didn’t stop my desire to wear one. Each time I saw a burqa-clad girl, my desire to adorn a burqa only intensified. When one fine day, I told my parents that I wouldn’t walk out of the house unless they bring me a burqa, the journey of the abaya-clad girl began. I embraced it as my identity, not knowing that soon enough, my identity would be questioned by this judgmental society.
When I remember that day, my heart aches. It was a bright sunny day, but for me, it turned out to be gloomy. In January, 2015, excited to be the anchor of the farewell program, I stepped inside the school auditorium but was soon stopped by a teacher and taken to the principal’s office for committing the grave sin of wearing the hijab inside the school premises.
I was given two options by my principal: To either take off my hijab and then conduct the farewell program or to continue wearing it and leave the anchoring. I chose the latter. Surprised by my decision, she went on to humiliate me. Calling me an illiterate who needed to be educated. As I tried raising my voice, I was soon silenced and later convinced by my teacher to conduct the farewell program.
I remember how deeply traumatised I felt back then and as a literature student, now when I think of it, I can’t help but relate it to Draupadi’s disrobing. I have realised that the right to wear the hijab does not belong to me alone, as many young girls are willing to wear it but are stopped by the divisive stereotypes thrust upon them. I remember that when I had adorned my abaya, it gave many other school mates the courage to wear it too.
I ones asked a friend that if she had not known me and would have seen me outside the doors of our school, what would she think of me. She replied, “Restricted in all possible ways. To put it short, oppressed.”
When in reality, the hijab/burqa stands for freedom. The freedom to practice one’s religion, symbolic of our obedience to Allah. It means modesty, it is an outer manifestation of our inner modesty. There’s a very common misconception about the hijab that it has only been imposed on women when in reality, men too have been asked to follow a set of clothing principles such as wearing a loose-covered outfit and growing a beard. Apart from modest clothing, the hijab is also symbolic of modesty when it comes to the social world. For instance, these days when women often get gazed at by men and we don’t like those lustful gazes, that’s when the hijab ordains men to lower their gaze and vice-versa.
Hijab is not oppression for women but a symbol of empowerment. Today, we live in a society where women are subjected to sexualisation and objectification and that’s where the hijab de-sexualises women. It gives them recognition for who they are and not for what they look like. Today, women are subjected to inferiority complexes because of what they look like or if they don’t meet the standards of beauty set by patriarchal society. The flourishing makeup industries prove that, or to be more precise, fairness creams. According to these industries, for a woman to look confident and be liked by men, she has to look good, she has to be fair, she has to be slim, etc.
We have seen enough objectification of actresses in item numbers or their movies, wherein to be liked by the audience, they either have to dance to the item numbers or wear short outfits, which they may or may not be comfortable in. Hijab forces others to look beyond the external and to focus on the internal.
Wendy Shalit, the writer of “A Return to Modesty, Discovering the Lost Virtue”, writes, “Hijab is a symbol of empowerment and feminism wherein the woman not only accords herself self-respect but also demands it from others. To put it in simple words: “I am only showing you what I choose to show you. And the only people who get to see the special parts of me are the people who I wish to see those special parts of me. For everyone else, look at my personality, my identity as an individual, my identity as a fellow human being,” says Attiya Latif in her Ted talk.
This rhetoric of oppression has come from the west, from the time of colonisation. Leila Ahmed, in her book “Women and Gender in Islam”, writes that when in the 19th century, the British and the other colonisers came to Muslim countries, they looked for a means to justify their colonisation and the only way was to label their traditional culture as regressive. And yes they made the hijab their target.
Lord Cromer, governor of Egypt, used to tell women how oppressed they were and how he wished to free them. When in reality, Cromer turned out to be a patriarch, wherein he used feminism as a weapon to oppress women as he raised tuition fees of girls’ schools. He also labelled medicine as the occupation of men and midwifery of women. Even more shocking is that he was the leader of the Men’s League against women’s suffrage in Britain.
Attiya Latif states, “Western feminists tell Muslim women that they can’t conceptualise their own feminism, and instead adhere to theirs. When in reality, feminism is a diverse movement where women of various cultures and religions can determine equality for themselves.”
Take my example, I am an aspiring journalist and I believe that my burqa does not obstruct me from following my passion. As we all know, France banned the burqa some years back. I call this violence against women. Recently, after Trump’s victory the hate crimes against Muslims have increased, says a survey and Muslim women, who choose to cover up, have been the target of such hate crimes. I ask all these patriarchs: When will you stop this objectification and targeting of women?
However, society is not all bad as there have been some beautiful changes. #I will ride with you is a campaign with more than 150,000 tweets as Australians show support for the Muslim community. World Hijab Day celebrates the spirit of women who decide to take on the journey of modesty.
To all the people out there, I have only one thing to say. Stop defining us, stop labelling us, don’t tell us who we are, and what we are like. We have a voice to define ourselves, so please stop calling us this and that and let us decide who we are and what our hijab represents. Learn to acknowledge, accept and respect the differences. So please don’t tell us that we can’t be both a hijabi and a feminist. After all, I am a hijabi feminist.