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Where’s your hijab — the question I face the most as a Muslim woman online

Covering my head is a conversation I’ve never had with family or friends. The discussion on hijab only happens with strangers trying to counter me politically.

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Spotted without hijab, fatwa time!”

I am a proud Muslim. What’s more relevant today in 2019 is that I am a practising Muslim. Social media is a junkyard of thoughts, but a useful window into human thinking. “Where’s your hijab?” That is the question thrown at me the most on my social media timeline by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

So, I will face the ‘naked’ truth, and examine the absence of the hijab from my head. Why does it bother everyone else, except me?

Also read: How a Muslim doctor in Kerala is fighting against the ‘un-Islamic’ face veil

What is a hijab?

Most people use the word hijab to denote a headscarf worn by Muslim women. Hijab is an Arabic word that translates to “partition” or a “curtain”. The larger meaning of hijab, according to Islam, is about “modest” behaviour.

I was tagged once on Twitter with a tweet that said:

“A prostitute is more modest than an anti-national woman in hijab that supports terrorism.”

Besides being good at spewing drivel, this person had a sound understanding of the concept of modesty vis-a-vis hijab. But does Islam only expect women to be the paragons of modesty?

Not at all.

Verse 31 of the 24th chapter of the Holy Quran called ‘The Light’ mentions God telling women to cover their head and bosom with a cloth to observe modesty. Hardly anyone ever bothers to mention the verse right before this one. Verse 30 of Surah ‘An-Nur’ also asks men to be modest: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.”

So, modesty, in Islam, is gender-neutral. But one is rarely ever told this because “conservatism, thy name is maulvi”.

Also read: Dutch burqa ban exposes Muslim women to attacks

Seeing beyond the hijab

Today, the hijab is only used as a political tool to target women – those who wear it as well as those who don’t.

Either we are regressive or we are sluts.
Either we are too covered or we are ‘nangi’ (naked).
Either we don’t fit in modern society or we are provocateurs of rape.

Nothing is ever good enough. Women can never walk the tight rope in this world full of crotch-tugging, ball-scratching, publicly-urinating men.

Which also brings me to the question: Can a person’s choice of clothes be the only way to judge how they think? When I speak about Islam and on the issues of rights and justice for Muslims, I’m dismissed as a bad Muslim for not wearing the hijab.

I don’t wear the hijab because my mother or her mother never wore it, and they were devout Muslims. I started reading the Holy Quran at the age of three, before I went to a regular school. I understood hijab as a character trait, one that makes you choose to be modest. Covering my head, or any other part of my body, in a specific way is a conversation I’ve never had with family or friends. The discussion on hijab only happened with absolute strangers trying to counter me politically.

When I say the Hijab is really a choice and is not oppressive, I’m insulted as a “fundamentalist in designer wear”. What’s ludicrous is that non-Muslims judge me this way.

The images of hijab-wearing American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar are considered path-breaking. But to be honest, they really aren’t. Ironically, the fact that she is seen as a hijabi making it big in American politics makes her a caricature of the very stereotype she tries to break every day. Ilhan Omar is a talented young woman who can shake you in your boots with her oration. But to see her as a hijabi who can ‘manage’ to do that is exactly where people make the hijab her most significant identity, whereas that’s only a choice, which she makes as a Muslim. Hijab isn’t the glass ceiling she broke.

Also read: Hijab not simply about religion, Muslim women wear it for several reasons

Why judge only the hijab?

African women wear the ‘Dhuku’ (head wrap) for religious or cultural purposes. The Sikh wear the ‘Dastar’ (turban) as an article of faith. Jewish men wear the ‘Kippah’, while the women wear ‘Sheitel’ (wig) or ‘Tichle’ (headscarf) to cover their hair. The Jews too, just like the Islamic hijab, follow a concept called ‘tznuit’, which means practising modesty through clothing and behaviour. Men and women are told not to dress in a manner that emphasises their physical attributes.

Covering the head is not just unique to Islam, and that means the oppression or glorification of covering the head cannot be exclusively pinned on the hijab. In much of rural north India, women still cover their heads, and the ‘ghoonghat’ is romanticised in poetry and music.

It became starkly clear after the Christchurch attack in New Zealand, that everyone has an opinion on anyone wearing the hijab. When New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore it, some people saw it as an annoying shtick that was unnecessary to show solidarity. Others thought it was compassionate. I looked at it just as a piece of cloth she wore on her head. Ardern was born a Mormon, became an agnostic and is in a live-in relationship with her partner, who she just had a child with. The hijab didn’t undo any of her credentials.

 Just like the hijab had no role in Aries Susanti Rahayu’s achievements, who at 24 has already won two Asian Games titles and has been named in Forbes Asia’s ’30 under 30′ list.

Also read: Criticising Vogue Arabia cover or New Zealanders donning hijabs reveal our liberal hypocrisy

Politics over a piece of cloth

In India, the hijab is being used to perpetuate the politics of the Right-wing government that has assumed the mission of emancipating Muslim women. Somehow, liberation only comes by ripping off the burqa or hijab from a Muslim woman, but not through education, skill learning, job opportunities and financial independence.

Stories like those on Mahjabeen Malghani, a 33-year-old bike-riding, burqa-clad woman travelling 60 km every day to go teach boys at a primary school in Pakistan, show how parochial the perceptions of people are about women who choose to dress the way they do. The perception of making a headscarf look repressive also serves the purpose of targeting a religion as tribal and patriarchal, whereas Islam, over 1,400 years ago, gave property rights to daughters too.

Targeting me for not wearing the hijab to colouring me as a ‘bad Muslim’ in spite of my following all the five pillars of Islam shows how politics is done over a piece of cloth.

What women wear is still used as a measure of progressiveness of society. Which is why you’ll never find the beard, the ‘janeu’, the ‘kalawa’, the ‘shikha’, circumcision, turbans, robes, naked monks ever being measured with the liberated-or-outdated yardstick.

So, next time they ask me ‘where’s your hijab’, I’ll let my middle finger do the talking. 

The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.

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  1. This article shows the absolute ignorance of the author on Islam. Further, she contradicts …she is trying to defend Islam mandatory practicing of hijab or burkha with liberal retention. She tries to convey that Burkha or hijab is a choice opted by women. In reality, it is imposed by men there is no choice left.
    She also propagates the myth that Islam gave the property rights to women. This is historically wrong.. Islam institutionalized discrimination against women in succession of the property.

    However, the critical question to be asked is whether Islamic prescriptions for women including hijab/burkha, property etc. is valid as per the present-day norm of human rights values. A young actress quit movies citing that it takes away from her god. Instead of ignoring it as an individual choice we need to look into whether Islam prohibits acting in the movie. If so it is a good norm to be followed in the present day. This kind of critical examination is applicable to all religions. So authors like Zainab Sikander should not attempt to justify Hijab citing similar practice elsewhere. Wring practice in another religion does not make tribal era practice of Islam.

    Another dangerous trend in the writing is that it wants to do a balancing act and instead of rejecting the outdated ideas of the Quran, in effect this approach of the author condition the soil for the Islamic fundamentalism.

  2. Your article just shows how ignorant you are of your religion and its historical basis and evolution. Considering that your training in the scriptures started at age of 3 when children do not have any inkling about the real world and its complexities and negativities, I really doubt you understood what it meant.
    Reading scriptures is one thing. What was done with the interpretation and implementation of those scriptures in the real world is a completely different matter and that is what affects the reality people live in and the opinions that the form about one another.
    Most Hindus do not know what their scriptures say. If they do study it, they simply memorise it. Trying to understand the true meaning of these scriptures which present all the complexities of real life in different stories and parables would take decades. A child of 3 will definitely not understand it. Most Indians are poor in understanding the history of their land as well as the history of Hinduism because Indians have been very poor chroniclers of history.
    Maybe, this is the reason why most Indians live in the current reality [all religions including Muslims] rather than live in the past and cling onto age old scriptures. Their lives continue to be practical & productive despite so many invasions and wars among themselves. And each community and caste is free to have their own beliefs from their own gathered experiences.
    Hinduism is confusing and it even celebrates the villains of its stories such as Ravana, Duryodhana, Shani, Bali etc. It shows God is the sole creator of both good and evil and there is no opposition to God such as Shaitan.
    Thus, your understanding of your own religion is done in by not understanding its contradictions and the lack of community will to move with the times.
    By the way, whatever you say about the dress habits of other religions, in their cases, they still have a choice and they do not inconvenience others with their choices. A Sikh wearing a turban is not problematic for anyone else. Please note that the Sikh is also supposed to carry a proper military sword and wear a beard. How many Sikhs actually do it? Many Sikhs do not carry the sword anymore and instead tuck a small knife in their turban hidden from view.
    Can you say such adaptability is being done in the Islamic except in a secular and tolerant country like India?
    I am a doctor and I can tell you many stories where the actions of your community directly contradict what you say and consistently trouble other communities. For example, in this day and age where everyone has technology at hand and alarm clocks, is it really necessary for Azaan blaring out so that the whole city can hear and disturb every citizen of every other religion to wake up at 5 A.M? What about those who have not had time to sleep till that time like doctors? What about patients who are sick in the neighbouring hospitals?
    First, please introspect yourself. Then you will understand where the irritation towards your community comes from. There was never a single Muslim girl classmate of mine who wore a burqa or hijab. We never asked them at school. We were friends with them. The present generation born in the past decade are made to wear hijab or even a full burqa even at age of 3. Is this Wahabbi ideology or Hanafi ideology? Is this not a detrimental and regressive change happening? Where is the choice of the child here who does not understand its meaning nor the meaning of sexual desire?

  3. I found the comments more illuminating than the article itself, whose purpose I could not understand. Did she get paid for it? But I must say that she is a very intelligent lady. I mean, being able to read Arabic at the tender age of three and comprehend what was written in the book is commendable. However I do hope that her parents also gave her other reading material, more suitable to that age.

  4. When mentally affected with her own community questioning her choice of cloth, blame it on right wing, a right punch bag and quote Rahul Gandhi as great soul. Highly disturbed person, offloading some personal content in public, with a rider, right at the beginning that I am devote and loyal to my cult. Freedom of expression clashes with cult practices.

  5. Nice way to save a psychiatrist’s fees. Unload all your tripe on your readers, get paid for it and hope to find a solution from the comments. If nothing else get the load of your chest. Seriously.

  6. Zainab Sikandar lied outright, when she said, “… Islam, over 1,400 years ago, gave property rights to daughters too.” Pre-islamic women enjoyed FULL and EQUAL property rights. This we know from md.’s first wife, Khadijah, herself. She was a business-woman of great fortune. She used to employ men to do her business for a certain percentage of profits. So, saying islam gave women property rights is BS. Pre-islamic women enjoyed that even before md. came into the picture.

    In fact, women LOST equal property rights after islam. al Lah doctrines that a male gets a double share of the inheritance over that of a female. The Quran in Sura 4:11 says:

    The share of the male shall be twice that of a female . . . . (Maududi, vol. 1, p. 311)

    Malik (d. 795) was a founder of a major school of law. He composed a law book that is also considered a collection of reliable hadith: Al—Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas: The First Formation of Islamic Law (rev. trans. Aisha Bewley, Inverness, Scotland: Madina Press, 1989, 2001). Malik writes:

    “The generally agreed upon way of doing things among us . . . about fixed shares of inheritance (fara’id) of children from the mother or father when one or the other dies is that if they leave male and female children, the male takes the portion of two females.”

    islamic law is regressive. In India, inheritance is divided equally among all siblings, regardless of the gender. So Indian secular law fits into a modern context better, where women have more economic opportunities and freedom. islam took away that equal right to property of women.

    Didn’t I say muslims are the most ignorant of their own religion? Zainab proved it!

  7. muslims, especially muslimahs are the last ones to know about their cult. So, ignorance of Zainab Sikander is not surprising. Zainab Sikander naively declars, “…modesty, in Islam, is gender-neutral.” Nothing is most further away from truth than that statement. Let’s display her ignorance:

    “islam arises in the sixth century and muhammad sets new standards of shame on women. Asbagh bin Nubatah quotes Imam ‘Ali as follows: “Almighty God has created the sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave NINE parts to women and ONE to men. And if the Almighty God had not given the women equal parts of shyness …” (Wasa’il, vol. 14, p. 40).

    This translation to English makes the Arabic word (`awrâ عورة) into the English word of shyness, but the real root and core meaning of this Arabic word is of shame. (The term`awrâ has several connotations within Arabic, the root of the word is awr عور and means defectiveness, blemish or weakness, but is used to also describe nakedness or shame. Awrat عورات is used to say woman or femininity). That al Lah has provided nine parts of sexual desire to women, and only one to men, but somehow balanced this sexual desire overload by putting nine parts of shame on them reflects how women were seen by the prophet of islam, and reveals how women must see themselves as full of shame. Her shame was created by al Lah, and must be hidden from the eyes of the world, whereas we see that only mankind’s sins brought shame onto the human forms that God created.

    This strange concept is a difficult one to understand, since muslim men are often excused their sexual lusts and behaviors while the women of islam are to be held as examples of modesty and propriety. al Lah apparently created a confusion here, by giving women an extra nine doses of sexuality, but then puts her in shame of it. Her sexuality is something for her to be ashamed of at all times, and to be hidden. The veil of the muslim woman is one of covering the creation that al Lah gave her that is not only filled with sexual desires but also with shame. Everything in their lives is monitored for shameful behavior, from their dress to their voice tones.

    Gestures that a girl might see on TV or in school that she imitates might be the very things that bring shame on her, and therefore harsh rebuke, e.g. winking, provocative walk, etc. Everything that she does is weighed with the scale of shame. This shame inundates her life, and comes with a feeling of guilt. This constant burden of shame weighs a muslim woman’s every action. One hadith states “All of a woman is Awrah. When she leaves her home, Satan looks at her.”

    The knowledge that Satan looks at her while out of her home leaves her feeling exposed and sullied. A muslim woman cannot come to al Lah to pray without being fully covered, hiding her shame-nakedness.”

    islam starts with the premise that men have no self-control. Men are innocent helpless creatures. So, it’s the responsibility of temptation (women) to remove itself! Their argument goes like this: I am tempted by cake. So, it’s the responsibility of the cake to remove itself from my sight. If not, I’m so helpless that I’m bound to gobble it up! Whereas, other religions tell you to be responsible for your own actions!

  8. Zainab Sikander starts her article defensively by declaring that “I am a proud Muslim. What’s more relevant today in 2019 is that I am a practising Muslim. ”

    Ok, but, who cares? who is she declaring to about her loyalty? Why is it more relevant today that she is a practicing muslim than in the years before 2019? Why should anyone care? Isn’t that her personal choice, but she is putting on a public show of displaying her loyalty to her cult.

    She says, “Targeting me for not wearing the hijab to colouring me as a ‘bad Muslim’ in spite of my following all the five pillars of Islam shows how politics is done over a piece of cloth.”

    Is she complaining about her fellow muslims targeting her, because people of other faith usually don’t know about the five pillars. So, she is indirectly targeting her fellow muslim audience to get off her back for not wearing the head sack, but doesn’t have the courage to single them out publicly by naming her community. Hence, the generalization.

    Further she says. “In India, the hijab is being used to perpetuate the politics of the Right-wing government that has assumed the mission of emancipating Muslim women. Somehow, liberation only comes by ripping off the burqa or hijab from a Muslim woman, but not through education, skill learning, job opportunities and financial independence.”

    What’s a right wing government got to do with her not wearing the head sack? Modi government just liberated muslimahs from the fear of being unceremoniously dumped by making it a crime for a muslim man to arbitrarily divorce his wife by saying talaq thrice. Is she blaming the Modi government for banning the misogynistic practice of talaq and liberating her kind?

    What is Zainab Sikander babbling about? Who is letting this mental unstable women write articles?

  9. My mind can’t believe that what’s written in religious books are not the thoughts of humans of that time. Proclaiming that those thoughts are from Allah or God is a clever way to subjugate people’s ability to independently think and act. Religious books are full of contradictions and people choose what suites them to give legitimacy to their social and political plans. People should be alert to save themselves falling victim to religious game plans of vested interests.

  10. Though I am a fan of your style of reporting especially your sense of humour and energy in it. And I believe religious beliefs are personal choice. But still I would like to ask that is “let my middle finger do the talking”, a modest phrase? Since you mentioned that the concept of hijab is equivalent to being modest. Please note that I’m no WhatsApp unkil who is offended by the phrase but just a curious guy.

    • The apple doesn’t fall far away from the tree! prophet md. showed his middle finger to women 1400 years ago, when he made-up his revelations, except muslimahs like Zainab Sikander assume that it is a thumbs-up sign!

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