Who is Afraid of My Hijab?
By Safiya N.Y.
Today while sitting leisurely in the comforts of my home, I feel proud that my home got a few women always clad in a loose hijab. It is not an artificiality that accompanies them everywhere, but a personal artefact that clings to their hair as wind does with it or rain drenches it. After years of interaction with the outside world, I have many experiences to share with a world that genuinely wants to know how a little girl gets intimidated when she begins to wear a hijab. I have always understood from the beginnings of my girlhood that the secular world around expects me to be less medieval, less patriarchal, less conservative, less outdated, less freaking, less scary, less arrogant, everything less than what I am. It took me a while to realise that the world simply wants me to be ‘less Islamic’, whatsoever it may be and nothing else. It keeps on telling me in disguised voices that being visibly Muslim is what hinders my growth as a person and what keeps me away from the mainstream world. One simple act of throwing my head scarf away could possibly integrate me with the world around and do wonders to me. I still wonder what those wonderful things could be that would have changed my life because I refused to be rewarded by the world and did not barter my hijab for anything.
Before understanding the politics and theories behind a simple hijab, my instinct warned me that practicing even a half-heartedly done hijab is a threat to the existence of an otherwise smoothly functioning secular psyche. When I utter such a generalising statement, I say it with conviction because of my experience as a practising Muslim (Allah knows better). If I am wrong, why does the world always, including individuals from my own community, condescend to me when it does not have any idea of what has contributed to the making of my faith, my ideology, my choice of worship and other personal facts? Very rarely have I received acceptance from the world for being a hijab-wearing Muslim. When I grew up and became articulate enough to explain myself, I was received with reluctance and looked at with disbelief. I realised that it pains the world to see an educated Muslim youth in a hijab.
My first tryst with the outside world was school. And the curious reactions began from there. It seemed to me that an above average student believing in Muslim ideals cannot be accepted. Since they are intelligent and educated, they should conform to the ideals of the general ‘modern’ world. Only the uneducated, the backward and the uncouth maintain their religious beliefs, no matter how good-mannered and principled they are. If that is the case (I did wonder then), why do you expect me to get education in the first place if you want to ridicule my faith throughout the process of education? I resisted then and still do now, as I have reached the capital city of India to pursue my dreams for a place in the civil services of the country.
I grew up in a very religious atmosphere. My father would wake up by two o’clock in the morning everyday and would be reciting the Quran, doing prayers, and reading his daily newspapers till 7 o’clock without a fail. The peace I could imbibe from his voice even in my sleep is beyond anybody else’s understanding. So by the time I was five and was in school, I had got an understanding of the basic tenets of the faith. I was a very curious kid and I remember having long and incessant conversations with my parents on religion and god, even before school. So when I went to the tailor with my siblings to stitch my uniforms one summer vacation, I asked him for a shalwar-kameez with a longer sleeve and a hijab. He was taken aback and wanted clarification from my parents; he thought I was too small for such a makeover. I got confused, nevertheless insisted that I decide what suits me best and got me one. The look in his eyes on that day still follows me on the outskirts of Delhi. That look of disbelief mixed with annoyance thankfully assisted my decision to wear a hijab throughout my life.
Ever since I started wearing a hijab, I realised it is not easy to be out there in the world with even half of the head covered without eyebrows being raised or questions asked. One common remark I had to endure from many was that I don’t look the way I talk. When asked to explain, one female friend of mine explained that a hijab wearing Muslim girl is not expected to be educated or confident or having opinions on issues relating to the world. One amazing thing was that rural people from northern states of India mistook me as a married girl from some village who wears a veil to respect her village custom (probably a Hindu one). But once they come to know that I come from a Muslim family, their attitude reverts to suspicion or derision. That’s when it irked me (for better or worse), and I have come to the realisation that someone somewhere did not like me covering my head for some particular reason. I could see the grounds behind those contemptuous looks from well-dressed ladies in the metros, at airports and sadly from my own very educated teachers. One particular teacher was very disappointed when my hijab continued to decorate my head even after the winters. He sighed and exclaimed, “Oh! So that was an Arab custom and not because of the cold.” It saddened me more because it came from one person who really gave an objective opinion on Muslims, Muslim nations and Muslim history.
Somewhere our world failed to see that it came from my own conscience to wear a hijab and not as per the diktats of an oppressor who misrules me. Everyone wanted to know if it is necessary or if I can skip this one particular practice like many other girls. And, interestingly, I met many Muslim girls, who told me that they find it very difficult to carry a hijab confidently in a city like Delhi. They were very proud to find me comfortable in a hijab and were candid enough to admit that they were scared of the indifferent looks they were supposed to receive for their hijabs. Unless hijabs go well with the latest fashion, they are timid even to cover their heads casually for it may mar their appeal in the public.
It is an undeniable fact that dressing up matters a lot to the public eye. The best of all attires is intriguingly the revealing one. Women are expected to wear “modern dresses” which align well to western ideals and fashion sense. Consider jeans, it has turned out to be a widely accepted and comfortable wear and, consequently, someone who does not own a pair of it turns out to be outdated. Such an outlook on dressing helps to marginalise Muslim women, who wear clothes that are in consonance with their religion. Such modestly dressed up women are never welcomed into the mainstream world or these women find it intimidating to secure a place in society. The consumer market has effectively turned women (even men) into commodities without them being ever aware of it. When a woman, well-clad in a hijab, enters into such an atmosphere, the whole setting may rightly appear hostile. This hostility is what hinders Muslim women from getting their rightful place at the centre. As a result, mostly we are unable to find hijab-clad or burqa-clad women in prestigious social positions or in public enterprises.
Many young girls in short tops and shorter pants approached me with hearty smiles and pious salaams and introduced themselves as Muslims. And the western market wants exactly this. They overpower our religious faith and traps our women into believing that worldly success is impossible without a physical makeover – be it a haircut or the act of showing it off. By doing this, the world has successfully prevented the veiled woman from foraying into the mainstream world. It has, therefore, become mandatory for a Muslim to educate our folks about the politics and economics that lie in the process of marginalising Muslim women for their looks and stereotyping a veiled woman as uneducated or medieval. Partly our worn-out faith is also to be blamed; not always the western media and its promotion of modernity. But who has shattered our faith? Globalisation perhaps has through the imposition of its softer form of cultural hegemony.
Every day I slip out of my room and look around and just wonder who really is afraid of my hijab. ‘Everybody,’ is often the answer! A hijab-clad woman who believes in her inner attributes a lot more than in her physical counterparts is, in fact, a threat to the very existence of our popular secular culture. Everybody is afraid of such a woman, someone who refuses to be stereotyped, someone who refuses to be moulded by the forces of market, someone who refuses to be dressed for the world to see. The world is too immature to accept someone like that – who dresses up to please just her God. That perception of a Muslim woman is scary for many. Such a liberating thought would elevate the status of a Muslim woman in popular psyche, which is unwarrantable for too many.
So who cannot but be afraid of my hijab? Everybody actually is. And I do not wonder at the thought anymore.
Safiya N.Y. is studying for a postgraduate in English Literature, Kerala University, and is from a village in Kerala. She currently resides in New Delhi and is eyeing for a place in the Indian Civil Services.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.