It’s been over two months since I decided to become a hijabi — one who wears a head scarf and adheres to modest clothing — and before you race to label me the poster girl for oppressed womanhood everywhere, let me tell you as a woman (with a master’s degree in human rights, and a graduate degree in psychology) why I see this as the most liberating experience ever.
Prior to becoming a hijabi, I did not expect myself to go down this road. Although I knew modesty was encouraged in my culture and by my faith, I never saw the need nor had the opportunity to explore the reasons behind it.
My experience working as a Faiths Act Fellow for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and dealing with interfaith action for social action brought me more understanding and appreciation of various faiths. I found that engaging in numerous interfaith endeavors strengthened my personal understanding about my own faith. The questions and challenges I encountered increased my inquisitiveness and drive to explore and learn for myself various fundamental aspects of Islam. Thus began my journey to hijab-dom.
I am abundantly aware of the rising concerns and controversies over how a few yards of cloth covering a woman’s head is written off as a global threat to women’s education, public security, rights and even religion. I am also conscious of the media’s preferred mode of portraying all hijabi women as downtrodden and dominated by misogynist mullahs or male relatives who enforce them into sweltering pieces of oppressive clothing. But I believe my hijab liberates me. I know many who portray the hijab as the placard for either forced silence or fundamentalist regimes; but personally I found it to be neither.
For someone who passionately studied and works for human rights and women’s empowerment, I realized that working for these causes while wearing the hijab can only contribute to breaking the misconception that Muslim women lack the strength, passion and power to strive for their own rights. This realization was the final push I needed to declare to the world on my birthday this year that henceforth I am a hijabi.
In a society that embraces uncovering, how can it be oppressive if I decided to cover up? I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women. I refuse to see how a woman’s significance is rated according to her looks and the clothes she wears. I am also absolutely certain that the skewed perception of women’s equality as the right to bare our breasts in public only contributes to our own objectification. I look forward to a whole new day when true equality will be had with women not needing to display themselves to get attention nor needing to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.
In a world besotted with the looks, body and sexuality of women, the hijab can be an assertive mode of individual feministic expression and rights. I regard my hijab to be a commanding question of “I control what you see, how is that not empowering” mixed with a munificent amount of authority emanating from the “My body is my own concern” clause. I believe my hijab gives me the right to assert my body, femininity and spirituality as my own and under my authority alone.
I know many would agree with me when I say that the hijab is basically an expression of spirituality and a personal bond with one’s creator, a tangible spiritual reminder that guides everyday life.
Yes, my hijab is a visual religious marker that makes it very easy for anyone to spot me in a crowd as a separate entity representing or adhering to a particular religion. This is all the more reason why, being a hijabi in the public arena is an escalating force that drives me to work in ways that would help break the undignified stereotypes, barriers and prejudices that my Islamic faith is relentlessly and irrationally associated with. As an extension of my personality and identity, it instigates me to challenge the misconception that Muslim women lack the bravery, intellect and resilience to challenge authority and fight for their own rights.
Every time I see my reflection in the mirror, I see a woman who has chosen to be a rights activist, who happens to be a Muslim and covers her hair incidentally. My reflection reminds me of the convictions that made me take up the hijab in first place — to work for a world where a woman isn’t judged by how she looks or what she wears, a world in which she needn’t defend the right to make decisions about her own body, in which she can be whoever she wants to be without ever having to choose between her religion and her rights.
Ayesha Nusrat is a 23-year-old Muslim Indian from New Delhi.