Why I wear a Hijab

The last encounter in this search for hijabis was the stuff of journalistic cliché. The meeting with naqaab-clad Tabassum in a seedy Old Delhi teashop where we are the only women could be the opening chapter of a book called Lipstick Hijabi or some such easy juxtaposition. Tabassum is shopping for Eid gifts in the glittery all-night markets and will happily play along in such a narrative. She is 26, works in an NGO and travels often. The daughter of a clerk and a tailor, Tabassum is a wickedly funny raconteur, who claims to have begun wearing the black naqaab (that covers her face, hair and torso) because of acne. She calls herself a behrupiya, one who can take on any avatar, who can walk demurely or laugh raucously on the streets, who can keep her eyes down or meet boys and spend hours in the evil cybercafé chatting with strangers. But she is also aware her hijab is a constant prompt for seekers of explanations.

But Tabassum has no easy explanations. She and a new generation of Muslim women are a challenge to old notions of the hijab as merely a coercive tool of male imprisonment. For them, it is an intensely personal and voluntary act. Yet, instead of asking for their opinions, hijab wars are now raging across the world on their behalf — from France, where zealous liberals have banned it, to Mangalore, where zealous bigots want to ban it.

In India, a country constantly bemoaning the loss of feminine modesty, one would assume the hijab would be admired. Instead, it is almost universally reviled. It is a slap to those who have grown up equating individual freedom with western modernity and secularism with atheism. It is violence upon the gaze accustomed to the Hindu face.

But for many Muslim women, the wearing or shedding of the hijab is a complex set of moves in a chess game of emancipation. Tabassum, for instance, feels no need to wear the hijab outside Delhi. In Delhi, regardless of the entreaties of her mother – you are so beautiful, why would you hide it — she refuses to take it off. Older male relatives had pushed her for years to adopt it, but she started wearing it only after they had given up. She also has male relatives who are embarrassed to be seen with hijabi wives outside of their Muslim neighbourhood – loath to be seen as oppressors by strangers. Tabassum laughs at both sets of men. She is not the only one.

Mehreen Ahmed, 24, a dental student in Hyderabad and the daughter of a doctor-engineer couple, has only recently convinced her brother that the ever-vigilant public will not attack her for wearing a hijab. It is a measure of the distances they have travelled that, for months, Tabassum played the old hijab game in reverse, putting it on only when out of sight of her disapproving mother.

But while many Muslim women may have mastered the art of skilful subversion, the hijab is certainly not voluntary for everyone. A Hyderabad- based professor (who asked not to be named) describes changes in the Urdu-medium women’s college he teaches in. From the 1980s, he has seen the hijabi change from a rarity—usually a poor girl, hiding her sparse wardrobe—to a rigid norm. As much a norm as the brother waiting at the gate at day’s end. Like Tabassum, these students may use their hijab with finesse, gaily swapping expensive coloured hijabs between them and slipping out to see movies or meet boys. But that this is not an act of choice became evident during a public-speaking contest in college. When asked what they’d do if they were men, all the participants replied, “We’d stop wearing hijabs.”

Such stories are ammunition for both rightwing Hindu groups organising provocative bans against the hijab as well as the progressive wishing to liberate our Muslim sisters through calls to ‘reform from within’ or anti-poverty measures.

But what is one to make of the new hijabis? Tabassum is only one voice in a wide and unnoticed thought revolution taking place, where many Muslim women are adopting the hijab as a voluntary embrace, as something they have ‘grown into’. These new hijabis are often urban, well-heeled, highly educated and the first woman in generations to wear the hijab. If one interprets emancipation and modernity as the freedom to make conscious, individual choices — not coerced by society — these women pose a tricky challenge. In our zeal to create free societies, what space are we leaving for the culturally rooted, even culturally conservative?

Over years of introspection and reading, these women have arrived at an understanding of the hijab as an attitude of modesty they are comfortable adopting. Their choices may seem inhibiting, but it is voluntary. They understand personal freedom not merely as the right to wear less, but to wear what they please — in this case, the right to wear more. Can one deny them this right?

Yet, not everything they say is easy to hear. The Quran tells you to be modest, not to wear purdah, says a hijabi. It tells you to cover your hair, ears and lower your gaze, says another. A third says the hijab prevents rapes; when she uses Old Testament words like ‘carnal attention’, you sweat a little. The saviour of Muslim womanhood inevitably sees new windmills to tilt at.

But why should this garment offend, ask these hijabis. For many of the Indian women who began wearing it post 9/11 – in the wake of the sweeping hostility against Muslims that enveloped even India — the prying gaze is not behind the twitching curtains of neighbours. It is a panopticon. And it is the hostility that turned many women — doctors, artists, writers — to the Quran for answers. Did Islam really tell a 17-year-old to bomb a building? Instead these women came away with an understanding of Islam as a compassionate, well-ordered way of life and with a decision to wear the hijab.

Almost universally, they speak of this decision as hugely empowering. Liberating. The world expanded. Public transportation suddenly became free of groping hands. “I didn’t feel like people were checking me out all the time. Boys saw me as someone who knew her mind,” says Sabbah Haji, 27, who adopted the hijab while in college in Bengaluru. She now lives in Jammu, runs her family’s educational trust and finds great peace in the choices she’s made.These decisions pose a feisty challenge to another byproduct of modernity: consumerism. The new hijabi sees consumerism and its coercive, insidious culture of the body as an imprisonment. The hijab represents a freedom from that. Farah Saleem, 24, a psychology student and daughter of NRI parents, says, “Now people don’t judge me on whether I’m wearing the jewellery I wore yesterday.” In a world devoted to the careful curating of consumption and appearances, such decisions ask us to make our fixed notions of “freedom” wider and more accommodative.

It takes Tabassum to bring back a frisson of what Neetu Singh brought to Amar Akbar Anthony when she lifted her veil — one of the last times we saw the hijab discussed in popular culture with joy or irreverence. “I have nice eyes,” Tabassum says, “Men must be intrigued when they imagine my face.”

Muslim women are constantly asked to prove they are not slaves, so no statistics will end the worry that the new hijabis too have been brainwashed. Nudged about this, Tabassum lapses into passion. “Sometimes even close friends ask about ‘pressure’. I tell them: Think of how joyfully you ask your mother to put a teeka on your forehead. You’ve to believe that I have a mind.”

It’s easy to tell the story of the new hijab as if it is the story of the old hijab — a piece of cloth and a woman within to be freed or protected as is your inclination. But the new hijab is as politically loaded as khadi must have once been. Film critic Roger Ebert once said that some melodramatic films depend on every character being an idiot, not telling each other the necessary truth. In our old country with new problems, we may never understand each other. We may feel stuck in an idiot plot but it does not have to lead to paranoia.

First published here.


Yet, instead of asking for their opinions, hijab wars are now raging across the world on their behalf — from France, where zealous liberals have banned it, to Mangalore, where zealous bigots want to ban it.

Isn't it an oxymoron to term them zealous liberals ? Banning something can hardly be called liberal.

The whole post reminded me of Saeed Mirza's Ammi, where he makes the point that we have now reached a state where the practice of religiously orthodoxy by anyone seems to preclude liberalism/free thinking.

September 27, 2009 at 4:19 PM  

To be honest my feelings about the hijab -old or new - are mixed. You can't force women to discard it and it's fair to say that some women do like the garment or use it to establish identity but it is hard to see it as empowering. Especially when growing up in India in the 80s you spent so much time and energy covering up, adjusting the dupatta and the like simply to feel "safe" in public. When you went to work you wore a saree because it looked "respectable" i.e. men/society looked at you with respect and saw you as "good". It is hard to construe this as freedom or even culturally rooted when the modern saree blouse is barely two centuries old (the problem with orthodoxy of course is that it is selective in deciding what exactly constitutes the orthodox). The constraints of society force all of us to adopt certain clothes but few of us would rationalise it as choice.

I love the water and I still remember an impromptu stop at a waterfall in South India. I went in fully clothed in a salwar/kurta/dupatta and next to me stood a gaggle of men in micro chaddis who saw it fit to pass lewd comments. It didn't bother me but you can see how this would drive women out of a public space and deprive them of simple pleasures. In contrast in Sydney, you can routinely swim in the sea in a bathing suit or in a mixed group with little by way of harassment (you can in India but solely in a religious setting). And at least in part the liberation of women from their corsets in the West had to do with ideas of health and vigour. Surely the literal curtaining off of one part of society has to leave any woman uneasy.....

I admire women who cock a snook at society and say f.. you and do as they will - and this is the hardest when such an attitude gets you slapped with titles like slut/whore/bitch and the like. In contrast wrapping yourself up in a hijab or a saree and being culturally rooted and winning respect is easy even in a post 9/11 world. Let's not think it empowering.

PS: Incidentally a book like The Discovery of France (Graham Robb) makes clear that the making of France's modern republic relied on the erasure of French regional identities. It's the same mind set in operation today so I am not sure if French attitudes are specific to Islam or rooted in the ideas of the Republic.

September 27, 2009 at 4:59 PM  

I enjoyed this article in Tehelka when I saw it there. I think you've done a nice job of dealing with complicated issue.

September 27, 2009 at 6:48 PM  


I really like how this article moves away from the tired cliches of 'coercive systems'. I was delighted to read it.

Also, at some places I was reminded of Michel Foucault.. have you read him?? Panopticon of course is in some sense a give away .. but I am also referring to your attention to the micro-textures of power (like breaking consumerism, adopting a hijab after ppl have given up trying to make you adopt one)

In any case, I enjoyed reading this article and it made me re-think some of my notions about hijab.

September 28, 2009 at 12:34 AM  

Dear all,

I had a lot of help with this piece at the editing and argument-formation end so can't take too much credit. Also I have had six years of talking to hijab-wearing friends... I still have some questions about the way the piece could have gone.

Anu: The inability to be in a public space by yourself to enjoy your aloneness, this is what I envy men the most in India

Hari: Thanks

Aniket: I have read Foucault but not enough and certainly without any depth of understanding.

September 28, 2009 at 9:50 AM  

This article voiced so well the contradictory thoughts on hijab we all have in our family. It's led to much confusion and soul-searching. And I'm still not sure where I stand.

You've concluded it really well.

September 28, 2009 at 10:27 AM  

Good to read something which has a different take on hijab, something that has willingness to engage with the contradictory and complex nature of something like hijab. I am really tired of reading 'liberal' readings of islam and women. They neither understand religion, self hood or politics i feel...

October 1, 2009 at 9:45 AM  


October 19, 2009 at 3:29 PM  

Lovely. Written with great finesse and understanding.

November 21, 2009 at 11:58 AM  

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