“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.
Where is ur burqa.?
— myview99 (@myview99) December 8, 2018
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?
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.”
— Nishi Mor (@mor_nishi) August 24, 2019
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”.
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 respect you but You have a Muslim name but you don’t follow Islam. A man is not allowed to gaze a girl as per Quran and Hadith and similarly Women are bound to Hijab.
— Parvez khan (@Parvezk64785367) July 17, 2018
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.
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.
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.