Writing My Own Story, In My Own Terms
By Nazreen Fazal
There was no loud thunderclap; no divine light shining upon me from the heavens above, no sign which led me to that moment. In fact, I don’t even remember the exact moment I decided to start wearing the hijab. I was 13 and just beginning to explore my religion. The hijab seemed like a natural next step in the spiritual journey I had begun. It has been ten years since and while the hijab remains, the journey has had many ups, downs and detours that I have now learned to expect.
A decade ago, I did not foresee my hijab becoming a catalyst in sparking debates on identity politics, multiculturalism, and feminism. I did not expect it to become a choice that I would spend so much time reflecting on, often debating and defending. My decision to wear the hijab also meant that I had become a ‘Visible Muslim’ in India. This act of covering up meant – ironically – having to constantly reveal my very personal choice of faith in front of everyone I come across. There is no other garment which evokes such passion from both Muslims and non-Muslims. It continues to amaze me how a mere fabric somehow makes it okay for even virtual strangers to make assumptions about my background, my choices, and even my future. On one side, I am told that I am not covering enough or that the way I drape my scarf is not correct; on the other side, I encounter people who feel I should just do away with the whole thing. Heated debates on TV, Twitter wars, panel discussions carry on in full-swing, while the hijab wearing women are relegated to back-seats in their own story. We are expected to listen and obey meekly as we are told what we should think about one of the most personal decisions in our life. Well, this is my story, which I now reclaim and write for myself. Thank You Very Much.
At 18, I started college with high spirits. I was in Bangalore – a city that I love in all its imperfection – living on my own for the first time. I was pursuing a degree in Psychology, Journalism and English – subjects that I loved and excelled in. I was actively involved in extra-curricular activities and was winning prizes for debates and ‘personality contests’. But I soon realized that did not matter. One day I visited the staff room to have some of the well-intentioned lecturers there ask me why I am wearing clothes that are so ‘drab’. Why, when I am so young, am I hiding my beauty under all those layers? Why don’t I wear something stylish? You are so brilliant, you don’t have to wear it you know.
As I stood there, an 18-year-old girl high on life and excited about her future, I realized this is how it is going to be. No matter how vibrant my personality or how many my accomplishments, I was still going to be judged based on the cloth on my head. The hijab never held me back from enjoying life and its little pleasures. I travelled, I met interesting people, I wrote about these experiences. But for these women, my clothing muted every other feature that defined me.
At 19, a teacher asked me when my parents are going to get me married off. You know since in my community people do that to girls.
At 13, a random Muslim man shouted at me for not being modest according to his standards.
At 15, I held back tears as a religious teacher told me I might taste the flames of hell for not covering my face with a niqab. While such incidents keep coming up, my responses to them have evolved over time.
Over the years I have developed a thick skin against these presumptions and judgments. When people ask me about my hijab, I can now tell apart the genuinely interested from the ones who are out to save or condemn me. I can see the words forming in their heads asking me to abandon what’s on mine. What changed? My decision to get out of my comfort zone.
At 18, I made a major move. I left my college in Bangalore and went to Malaysia to pursue a degree in International Communication Studies. It took a lot of courage and many tears to take that leap. My move, incidentally, took me from a Muslim-minority to Muslim-majority country and suddenly it was different. I found myself surrounded by women wearing the hijab, working as taxi drivers, receptionists, professors, bankers, doctors, vendors….I realized that here hijab was just another clothing and was not as enmeshed in politics as in other parts of the world. You could be a working woman, stay-at-home mom, highly accomplished, unemployed – absolutely anything at all – your clothing choices did not matter. Separating myself from the politics of hijab allowed me explore other aspects of it.
Malaysia introduced me to the wonderful diversity that exists in the Muslim world. In my university, I came across people from all over the world. I had friends from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Nigeria, Kenya, Singapore, Egypt…the list goes on. What I loved about my circle of friends was how everyone chose to cover in unique styles that reflected their cultural background and/or their personality. I fell in love with the floral Baju Kurung worn by Malay women, the brightly coloured wrap-around skirts and turbans that Nigerian ladies carry off flawlessly, the flowy salwar-Kameez my Pakistani and fellow-Indian friends wear with grace. On weekend shopping trips, we made sure to take the monorail to Masjid Jamek to splurge on colourful pashminas, quirky brooches to hold them in place, and jackets and long dresses that made modesty fashionable. Contrary to the mainstream belief, the hijab does not have to be a black uniform. Muslim women across the globe demonstrate this in their unique styles. You can see it in the many hues of our scarves, in the delicate drape around some shoulders, in the slight ‘twist and tuck’ under the chin for others. I am inspired by this amazing pool of talented, fierce, kind, loving women, who choose to don this contentious garment, despite the constant stream of unwarranted criticism they face from all quarters. That is dedication.
Every time I stand in front of the mirror, I have a little ritual-drape my scarf around head, tuck in the stray hair, check if all the hijab pins are in place, and then give a once over. I take joy in this decade-old ritual and each time I find myself content in the knowledge that I have done something that pleases my Lord. The hijab continues to give me little pleasures ever so often, like when I am walking down a street and pass a fellow hijabi. Most hijabis know that special moment we share – a knowing smile and a slight nod with which we acknowledge each other and all our struggles. We then walk on with our heads held high because we’ve got it covered.
At the same time, I must stress, that the hijab does not define me. It is just one of the many decisions that I made for myself. It does not limit me; neither does it give me a super-power that non-hijabis don’t have. I am as human as everyone, with the same desires and prone to the same deficiencies. I don’t see the need of exclusively celebrating ‘hijabis’ doing things – climbing mountains, playing sports, flying planes or twerking! Exclusively celebrating them would mean that they did these things ‘despite the hijab’, like the hijab is some obstacle to success that one needs to overcome. No, these are just women who happen to wear the hijab excelling in what they do. What needs to be celebrated instead are the victories of any woman achieving her dreams in this patriarchal society that is rigged against her.
For men and women who still think they have a right to barge in and make my choices for me:
My hijab is not meant to act as a barrier between you and me. Neither is it an opportunity for you to tell me how I should live my life.
It is an invitation to look beyond what is physical and connect with me as a person. If you don’t want to do that, and would prefer to just talk down to me, then know that
I don’t need your opinions.
I don’t need your pity.
And I definitely don’t need your saving.
I just need you to stand there and watch me rock my pashminas as I conquer the world with people, who value what’s in my head rather than what’s on it.
Nazreen Fazal is a writer, poet, and chronic traveller interested in exploring the intersection of language, religion, and gender. She holds an M.Sc. in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and a BA (Hons) in International Communication Studies with English Language and Literature from the University of Nottingham.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.