Feminist Dress Culture and the Hijab: Some Personal Observations
By Jenny Rowena
Two decades back, when we came into central universities from small towns, the first and indirect demand on us was to change the way we dress. I still remember being handed over the urban clothes of my Brahmin feminist friend. She wanted me to see how comfortable it was. Wearing it, I looked urban and ‘smart’ like her, but inside me, I was so unlike her, painfully shy and diffident, and I felt terribly uncomfortable putting on a façade of smartness. So, I gave back the pants and shirt to her and decided that I would make do with the salwar kameezes that I had been wearing since my teenage. That was perhaps my first assertion against the cultural onslaught of savarna feminism in the university.
Soon, fortunately, I met many other Dalit and bahujan women like me. They all had issues with the feminist dress culture like I did. We made fun of the starched cotton sarees of the feminist teachers. And wondered how many maids were needed to maintain it. We also laughed at how all of them, without fail, wore their sarees across their blouses in such a way that one of their breasts was left uncovered by the saree. I was often very untidily dressed and my friends teased me that now I looked just like ‘them,’ that is, a ‘feminist.’ Some of my Dalit and OBC women friends wore synthetic sarees and gold ornaments to conferences. They were not deliberately doing this to make a statement; they were just bravely refusing to change into the drab colors-cotton tops and kurtas- junk jewelry-savarna feminist dress code of that time. In fact one of my OBC friends even wrote an article in Malayalam, which touched upon the hegemony of feminist clothing.
So when the hijab debate started, it was easy for many of us to relate to what the Muslim women were talking about. In my case, this was also accentuated by the fact that I had married a Muslim and together we had decided to give our daughter an Islamic education at home. We did not want her to end up as a Caste Hindu in her mind, like some of the children of our atheist Muslim friends were. Along with her, I too took up the study of Islam because of which I made some very good friends who also taught me a lot. We live in a university apartment complex that houses many Muslim families from all over the country and yet stick together as a group. Due to my location within the Muslim milieu, it was easy for me to see how meaningless and false the constant cultural messages of Islam as anti-women and the headdress as oppressive were. Later, I came across the works of Saba Mahmood.
Saba Mahmood puts forward a critique of feminism from the perspective of religion. She also makes this new and important argument that white feminism is located within the binary of oppression/freedom. She shows how this focus is connected to the colonial representation of white women as more liberated vis-à-vis the women of the colonies who are shown as oppressed. More importantly, she also shows how the focus on ‘freedom’ is based on a liberal imagination of women within capitalist societies, where ‘freedom’ and ‘free’ women are necessary for the freedom and free movement of capital itself.
Soon, I realized that feminism was not just excluding many women but it was also oppressing them. It was trying to wrench them out of their own sense of the world and their social locations that are closely tied to their communities and literally forcing them to convert into a liberal worldview in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice.’ And this worldview, it was easy to see, was closely aligned to the life-world of the caste-elites, especially in urban spaces of higher learning.
In my teaching job in an elite university space, with its collection of self-satisfied savarna feminists, this understanding has only grown. My college does not have a single Muslim woman working there. (Wonder if it ever had one in its long history.) However, here there are many women from the minority Christian community, who openly claim a religious identity. There are also Hindu savarna women, who talk against all religions as oppressive and yet they take leave and rush home to get their houses cleaned and throw parties and celebrate Dusserah and Durga puja every year. Somehow they get projected as ‘free’ and outside the trap of religion even as they constantly look down on others as narrow beings trapped in religion and patriarchy.
In fact, there was this case of this Muslim girl who wrote religious poetry and who kept on complaining about how her teachers and fellow students were refusing to understand her faith and how alienated and lonely she felt in our elite college. However, in spite of the relentless complaints to some of us, eventually she ended up taking off her hijab. Her super-elite, savarna Hindu classmates clapped and cheered loudly and welcomed her when they saw her without the hijab for the first time. I was a witness to this scene!
In fact, in all these years I have realized how much the headdress has been demonized in the public sphere, which makes it appear disturbing and alien to many. Last year, when a few of our students celebrated the ‘Hijab Day’ in my college, not a single teacher wore the Hijab and many pretended that they didn’t even know about the program, though there were colorful notices about it everywhere.
Once while walking back from college, a few hijab-wearing students told me how they often get asked which country they are from. After talking for a while, I got into an auto rickshaw to go home and said bye to them. The minute I sat down, the driver asked me: “Which country are you from?” Just being with the hijab-wearing girls had marked me out as they were – as non-Indian!
However, now, I have come to learn something that I had absolutely no clue of, just a few years ago. Though others see it like that all the time, for a Muslim woman, the hijab is not just an external sign that marks or identifies her. Instead, it is the embodiment of her faith. It is the way she feels and holds her body and becomes her/self in the perfection of her din (faith). Nevertheless, this is also cultural, as often it becomes part of her through the particular culture of faith, within which she is brought up. Yet to reduce this to cultural compulsion alone is to totally ignore the question of faith and to just focus on the location of faith in culture. In fact, for women who convert to Islam, the hijab is often the most important and sometimes the last and definitive step in the move towards Islam.
And this is not something that is oppressive and neither can it be labeled as free. It is also not a political statement or a ‘choice’ as many are increasingly putting it. Those are not the terms with which one has to understand it.
In fact, there is no way to understand it, unless you believe in Islam and live by it.
 K.P. Girija, “KeralathileSthreemunnettangalkkuenthuSambavikunnu?” (What’s Happening to the Women’s Movements in Kerala?) in Bhashaposhini 24.12, 2002.
Jenny Rowena teaches English in Miranda House College, University of Delhi.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.