It was while working on a school project that Humaira Sarang’s relationship with the hijab or head scarf began. She was a 17-year-old researching women and their relationship with Islam. As she read up on the religion’s guidelines on how a woman should dress up and behave, they began to make sense to her. She decided she would cover her head hence.
Two years later, she would start wearing the burqa — while earlier she had stepped out in salwar-kurta or a pair of jeans. By the age of 20, a nakab (veil) concealed her face, never to be taken off in public again. The decision was made slowly and with deliberation, she says. She did not want to go back on her decision. “I thought it is prescribed for me and I should follow it,” she says, hinting at the influence of Islamic texts that she had started reading by then.
Now, seated in her fourth-storey ornate flat in Dongri, south Mumbai, the burqa is tucked away in the cupboard but the opinions of the 29-year-old flow freely. She is wearing a long cotton Pakistani suit. “It’s only in the house that I wear what I want. Out on the road, I prefer the hijab,” she says. Why? She ponders for a few seconds, then says: “It is…what makes Allah happy.” Her mother too wears a burqa outside the house and her elder sister started wearing one after her wedding.
To be married in two weeks, Sarang was never forced to wear a hijab, she says, by her “open-minded parents”. Her hotelier father prompted her to pursue a career in the Indian Administrative Services. She has made two attempts at the UPSC exams and a third one is to follow soon after the wedding. Government service would provide her a chance to improve the conditions of the minorities, she says.
The recent Supreme Court judgement barring head scarves and other accessories during the All India Pre Medical Test has left her perturbed. “Associating clothes with cheating is absurd. Why not increase the number of invigilators?” she asks. On Monday, a male friend told her about a national entrance exam in a Kanpur college, she says. “He was asked to remove his shoes, socks, belt, watch and part with his mobile phone. But in the exam room, he could sit anywhere, with anyone. An invigilator came to check once in 10 minutes. How does parting with a belt ensure you don’t cheat?” she asks.
Born and brought up in Dongri, Sarang went to Gloria Convent High School and then studied political science in Nirmala Niketan College. In cosmopolitan Mumbai, her choice to wear a hijab did not raise eyebrows in malls, theatres, coffee shops or on the streets. It was when she moved to Delhi to prepare for the UPSC test in 2010 that she realised she was viewed differently.
“Apartment hunting!” she sighs. It took months before she managed to find a place to stay in Mukherjee Nagar, north Delhi. Brokers suggested that she drop the hijab whenever she went to check out a house or meet the landlord. “Just like you wear what you wear, this is my dress. How can I remove it?” she had said, outraged.
While she was grocery shopping on a Delhi summer day, a man walked up to her and asked if she did not feel hot in a burqa. It was Humaira’s non-Muslim friend who came to her rescue: “Don’t you feel hot in your turban?” It’s true that the layers of clothing were difficult to manage initially, she admits, but she is used to it now.
She spent three years in Delhi until 2013, and through that period, remained acutely aware of glances directed her way. Once at a Metro station, a group of children pointed towards her male friend and her, saying, “Maulvi, maulvi”. She says she learnt to ignore it. A trip to the USA was much worse, she remembers. Her handbag’s contents were thoroughly checked at airports while other passengers walked through unperturbed. “The officials used a cloth swab to wipe the inner lining of the bag and scanned it. It was not embarrassing, just irritating,” she says.
She has to return to Delhi after her wedding, and is glad about one thing: “For Delhi’s climate, the hijab is extremely comfortable. In winters it protects, and in summers it acts like an insulating layer, cooling your body.”
The world of hijabs is fashionable too, she says. An avid online surfer, she mentions brands of headgear such as Inayah, Modanisa, Mevra, all based abroad. “A few days ago, I saw a girl wearing a hijab with Swarovski diamonds lining her sleeves,” she says.
It’s Dubai that knows how to make the hijab haute, she says, while in India, the black flowing georgette fabric remains the conventional option. “In Iran and Dubai, teenagers wear jeans and roll up their colourful hijabs up to their knees,” she says. Laces, frills, embroidery and net are now being used to personalise hijabs. Women also wear net veils, or add fake diamonds for designer outfits. The range starts from Rs 500 and touches Rs 50,000. Sarang prefers a simple black hijab though, except for a pure white one that she also owns.
“Like a ghunghat, the hijab is seen as a sign of oppression. But only in few cases is a girl forced to wear it. For the majority of women, it is a conscious decision,” Sarang says.