“Hijab” is one of the most emotionally charged and politically flammable words of our times. And it doesn’t help that the word rhymes with — of all things — jihad. Being a hijab-clad woman who chooses to assert herself within the mainstream is like being a walking target for “counter-terror operations” in the form of allegations and assumptions fired in your direction with great speed and precision.
In New Delhi on Friday, May 3, at the launch of Rakhshanda Jalil’s book But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim, the discussion centred around how identities are cultural more than religious; how they borrow from and seep into each other. It is, therefore, presumptuous to imagine a single way that a Muslim looks like, which leads to the oft-repeated exclamation: But you don’t look like a Muslim!
Which is when I raised the question: And what if you do?
What of those people within the Muslim community, or any other community, who choose to carry identity markers upon their person — in an entirely harmless, non-intrusive, non-threatening way? Who are otherwise productive, constructive, compassionate members of society, but dress differently for whatever reason? If you look visibly like a Muslim, is that reason enough for you to be marginalised or demonised?
Javed Akhtar, who was one of the panellists at the event, proceeded to ask me why I dress the way I do: In a headscarf and abaya (albeit not black, which perhaps makes me less of “the Muslim” too.)
My answer was this: I am a practising Muslim. There are various levels and ways of being a practising Muslim. For someone, it may be praying five times a day, for someone else it may be celebrating Muslim festivals. This, then, is my way of practising my religion.
And yes, just as one can be a practising Muslim without a hijab, one can be a practising secularist with a hijab.
Why do I feel the need to emphasise being secular? Because I identify very strongly with secular values as entrenched in the Constitution of India. And nowhere do I find them conflicting with my core values. I do not discriminate between people on the grounds of religion, nor do I divide people into “us” and “them”.
People equate secularism with absence of religion. The literal meaning of the word may well be that, but as times change, so do meanings. Language is flexible, malleable and words expand to take on new meanings as the sensibilities of society change gradually. “Secular” in our times has come to mean an unbiased, non-discriminatory approach towards people from all religions. Our secularism is built on empathy and mutual respect. It does not, in any way, denote the imposition of uniformity and homogeneity.
In fact, “hijab” itself is a classic case of words acquiring new meanings. In principle, hijab is an act and an observance, not a piece of clothing. By “doing” hijab, one declares that I observe a certain manner of dressing which, to my belief, is prescribed by my religion. “To my belief” is an important qualifier because there is a whole spectrum of ways in which Muslims across the world choose to dress.
The burqa, too, is no longer just a nondescript black robe. It has been replaced by the abaya, which now comes in as many colours and designs as any other dress. The headscarf has undergone drastic transformations — so much so that in 2017 Nike launched their sporty headscarf for hijabi athletes, tested by Emirati figure-skating champion Zahra Lari. Recently in the news was Somali-American model Halima Aden, the first woman to wear a hijab and burkini on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad even inspired Barbie to make a hijabi doll. That’s a world of a difference from the image of the oppressed woman that we are routinely presented with.
India, too, has witnessed a steady growth of hijabi professionals. Ramnath Goenka Award-winning journalist Ashwaq Masoodi is an unapologetic hijabi, as is Falak Naaz Syed, a financial journalist from Mumbai. Andaleeb Wajid, the prolific writer, chooses to keep her hijab and abaya on while churning out bestsellers. Asiya Ahmed Khan, a naturalist from Hyderabad, conducts tree walks and lectures, along with providing professional consultancy services to those who wish to plant native trees. Her daughter Mariam, who is a post-graduate in environmental science from the Tata Insititute of Social Sciences, works with an NGO that spreads awareness on animals. Both mother and daughter don the hijab out of choice. And these are just a few examples.
The fact is that the young Muslim woman of today has chosen to go ahead and own the hijab. She has personalised it and decided to carve her path following her own rules.
True, there are still sections of women who may not entirely have a choice. But banning or ridiculing the hijab won’t empower them or give them agency, given that their socio-economic conditions won’t change. Far more productive would be to give hijabi or burqa-clad women access to the same mainstream education and employment opportunities as others, without them being turned away for their dress. Countless Muslim women are, ironically, forced to take off their hijab in order to pursue education or employment, since people refuse to hire them in that dress — knowledge and skill be damned. How, then, are we speaking of free choice?
Providing access to mainstream education and employment are the only ways to bring agency to women. Only when they have the wherewithal to stand up for themselves can they be in a better position to take life’s decisions independently, including the choice of doing hijab. And that, right there, is real agency.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 20, 2019 under the title ‘In Good Faith: Behind the veil’. The writer is a freelance journalist.