What the Hijab Entails
By Feba Rasheed
One of the decisions that I took recently changed my life significantly. It resulted in my spiritual growth, in gaining some new friends, in losing some old ones and in developing a critical attitude regarding many of the taken-for-granted notions that I cherished in my life. The decision I made was to wear the hijab or the Muslim head-cover. I call it significant because the moment I decided to cover my hair I was bombarded with an array of questions and comments. Wherever I went, raised eye brows and puzzling looks welcomed me. The response I received from my friends and acquaintances were diverse in nature. While some adopted an openly hostile and ridiculing approach, others resorted to a sympathetic and patronizing tone. I was subjected to many uninvited abuses and advice.
The bottom line is, every of one my friends and foes were disturbed. They simply could not comprehend why I would make a choice to wear hijab, which for them is a symbol of oppression and patriarchy. For them I was indoctrinated. My agency divested. They decided for me and they spoke for me and, thus, were effectively silencing me. My questions regarding the “indoctrination” in sari or miniskirts or any other attire were conveniently ignored. It was only then that I began looking into the various theoretical and academic discourses surrounding the hijab, the same hijab, which was till then a spiritual choice for me.
“Look at that duck face!!”
“After all, all that is visible of you is hardly the size of my palm. And that looks like a duck!!”
These “unintended” “just for fun” “we’re friends, take it easy” jokes are not innocent ideas that mysteriously fell from the sky one fine day. These are results of a consciousness that has been fostered into the psyche of a generation that worships an idea that privileges the “normal”. What is this “normal”? Why are people forced to fit into structures that are not in the least designed for them? These are significant questions to be addressed. People who constitute the dominant social ideology have internalized a confidence that assures them a sort of legitimacy with respect to their actions. This confidence has encouraged them to establish something called the “normal” that is supposedly emblematic of equal, liberal, or secular principles. But these seemingly utopian dreams are harsh impositions that have naturalized itself through years of political endeavor, producing a generation that would unconsciously consent to the dominant traditions. Thus the rage and criticism, often generated in the form of advices, are actually “abuses” whether consciously or unconsciously purported, and are symbolic of the intolerance to accept my religious difference.
An unwarranted power has come to exist which backs the abuser. By “abuser”, here I mean those who exert violence upon hijabis/niqabis not just directly or in a way that is manifest/visible but in a way that is indirect and covers up their racial prejudices and spiritual/existential insecurities. Often times, people do not react with outright criticism. Rather, they come up with various forms of registering their disapproval like sympathizing, advising or educating us about “liberty” or “equality”. Or they come up with taunts or jokes that portray a hijabi/niqabi as bald, talentless, docile, etc. Such actions are much more violent than the outright ridicule and criticism. These actors of violence are not just expressive of their intolerance, but in the process, also dehumanize their counterparts. One particular variant of such violence is a tendency to exoticize the Muslim woman. For instance, people approach hijabis/niqabis with utmost curiosity regarding their appearance or the veiled “beauty”. The preconceived exoticized notion that a niqabi ought to be breathtakingly beautiful urges in them a curiosity towards her appearance. I’ve heard several uncovered, especially Non-Muslim women, excitingly speak of their experiences of being awed by the beauty that was revealed. Similar is the anxiety with regard to the hidden hair, i.e., the covered head of a hijabi. Several times I have heard troubled minds express their anxieties such as: “Is there hair beneath the cloth? And if so, then how long/short would that be”, and so on. Such pretentious curiosities are markers of an inherent unrest that is created through constant misrepresentations. This phobia with regard to a hijabi/niqabi is tackled by creating a reverse course of constant abuses (direct/indirect). This is a tool that is often employed to condemn the hijabis/niqabis. Moreover, the Islamophobic environment acts as a boost that bestows these “abusers” with indefinite power. This power is bestowed upon the enactor of symbolic violence through a mechanism of producing a victim whose identity is popularized as threat, dubious or the root cause of terror (when it is the Muslim male…and in the case of hijabi women, as abject, compliant and oppressed). The abuser enjoys belonging to a majority bestowed with the power to ridicule a Muslim women’s choice. Therefore, a white-American-Christian-heterosexual or a British-spoilt-brat, an Indian-“secular”-detached from religion, or an AIB-lover-eligible-youth, who calls a hijabi names and brands her as indoctrinated and “caged” under a black cloth, enjoys this power. It is interesting to note that the preachers of reason and tolerance, often in their strife to accomplish the liberating mission, fail to accommodate or acknowledge the fact that preferences cannot be defined.
Often times I have encountered these questions: “Why have you started wearing a headscarf? Has somebody influenced you into being all “religious”? What is wrong with you? Where is the old person you were? Why have you succumbed to patriarchy, after all that you were?” For some time, I took these questions as mere curiosity. Though it was highly traumatic and humiliating to “explain” my decision and the circumstances that led to it, I took it up as a challenge and expected people to “understand”. Now the word seems like a farce to me though. But gradually I realized that most of these, even in its subtlest forms, were gestures of disapproval and anxiety. “She is enslaved” was the observation made by a friend of mine when I chose to wear hijab permanently, while I was the same person who was hailed as a “progressive Muslim” with brains during my pre-hijab life. Most of these people who have criticized me for my decision are people among the intelligentsia of this nation. The lot I am referring to, here, are the ones who have received the best educational benefits India has to offer. And this factor further reflects the depth of such internalized discrimination on religious grounds. It is a declaration that if one does not conform to their ideas of the “normal”, then there would be discrimination. These responses have made me realize that spending decades of your life in strife to produce knowledge hardly makes you tolerant, accommodative or rational.
In India, hijab is constantly visualized as an import. This is in addition to the fascist hostility that Muslims have to deal with on a daily basis. This post-partition consciousness that is periodically fuelled by the political parties is inherent to the so-called “secular” and religiously “detached” psyche. A hijabi does not fit into the imaginary of a secular India. And a niqabi becomes an often feared, suppressed woman, who is caged in the patriarchal framework of her community. Each hijabi/niqabi would have several stories of humiliation to speak of. The humiliation of being subject to consistent reminders that she is an alien, backward, oppressed, weak and incapable of resolution. But, there is an interesting fact that the abusers or intolerant secularists hardly realize. An informed hijabi/niqabi, who struggles with these everyday alienations in the world, strives for something beyond, the afterlife. This goal of hijabi/niqabi is the fundamental basis on which, despite the constant violence unleashed on her, she holds fast unto this way of life.
The articulators of violence are produced due to the fact that they enjoy the liberty to remain unaffected. One can hardly imagine raising voice against such discrimination and actually taking the cases of humiliation to the courtrooms in India. What is peculiar about the hijab-phobia is that the criticisms mostly have a tinge of justification towards it. This interests me because justifications along with judgments reveal a certain kind of instability to the ideas. The abusers often tend to dictate their approach in a vain attempt to materialize their imaginations. It is time to resist rather than “explain” one’s decision to veil. The resistance can be articulated in several forms and it is important to create platforms where unapologetic approaches to veiling find space. And only such endeavors could inform and highlight the reality.
Feba Rasheed is doing her MA in English at the University of Hyderabad.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.