by Arman Khan | , 2022, Beyond the religious code of conduct, the hijab takes on many forms
Thirty-four-year-old Mahira, a software engineer, describes the hijab in a rather unique way when I ask her if she can envision a day without it. “It’s the covering for my soul and without it, I don’t think I can truly be human,” she says. “It’s not an entity separate from me.”
Wearing a hijab, for many Muslim women, remains a privilege. In some cases, they wear it at great personal risk
Even beyond the religious code of conduct associated with it, the hijab takes on many forms. Various historical records tell us that urban women in Egypt would often wear it as a sign of civilisation; in post-Islamic Persia, the hijab was worn by women who were in academia; while in the high societies of Mesopotamia, Assyria and the Byzantine Empire, the act of shrouding and veiling was directly proportional to economic and social status.
While the term ‘hijab’ literally translates to ‘cover’, the finer nuances of this covering are interpreted in various ways in different cultures. The common denominator in all these expressions is that the act of veiling meant entering a metaphysical realm that was at the intersection of the Divine space and the physical one.
If you ask Dr Aafreen Kotadiya, who specialises in immunohematology and transfusion medicine, the way she expresses herself has a lot to do with how she styles her hijab. “If I wake up feeling hopeful, I go with floral prints and mint. And when I’m feeling a little blah, darker shades reflect my mood.”
For Kotadiya, the way she carries herself in the context of her hijab has a lot to do with a finely crafted persona she’d like to present before the world. “People would like to take you for a ride (if you wear a hijab). I’d like to believe the way I style and modify my hijab mirrors the fact that I am a determined, driven person.”
She remembers the first time she went hijab shopping and preferred denim. “Although, as I would later discover, the material was supremely comfortable, I still liked the shape and form of it. To be able to make that choice is liberating.”
Wearing a hijab, for many Muslim women, remains a privilege. In some cases, they wear it at great personal risk. Across Europe, a systemic and multi-pronged bias against the hijab is eerily prevalent. In the modern world, scores of hijabs and veils were burnt as part of former Soviet Russia’s Hujum policies to achieve “gender equality”. In 2011, Belgium banned full-face veils, Germany banned it too wherever “legally possible”, Bosnia-Herzegovina imposed a ban on hijabs in all legal institutions. In India, the Karnataka controversy rages on.
For Dr Ruksheda Syeda, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience, the presence of the hijab in her life is seamless and what it means to her now is even more so. “I don’t remember my parents ever explicitly or even subtly asking me to wear it,” she says. “And when I started wearing it, there were no a-ha moments either. It was as normal as it gets”
“A hijabi woman anywhere across the world is acutely aware of the sheer privilege that comes with simply being able to wear what she wants,” says Zainab, 29, a sociology professor. “So, wearing a hijab in this context is not necessarily a rebellious act because that would mean women want to wear it in response to man’s laws.”
Ghazala Jamil, assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance in Jawaharlal Nehru University, tells Grazia that narratives around the hijab still have a long way to go from the long shadow of Partition in post-independence India.
“Around the Partition, any discussion on wearing the hijab or anything remotely Islamic was essentially looked at as a radical, separatist act from the lenses of Partition,” she says. “People would always read it that way, whether it was intended or not.”
IDENTITY & SOLACE
For Dr Ruksheda Syeda, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience, the presence of the hijab in her life is seamless and what it means to her now is even more so. “I don’t remember my parents ever explicitly or even subtly asking me to wear it,” she says. “And when I started wearing it, there were no a-ha moments either. It was as normal as it gets.”
For Syeda, the first time she truly related to the comfort and ease of the hijab was when she accompanied her parents for the Umrah pilgrimage in the late 1980s, while she was in the tenth grade, to Mecca and Medina.
Recently, the Karnataka high court upheld the hijab ban, further adding that the hijab is not an “essential practise” in Islam.
“There are many ways to look at it [the hijab controversy in Karnataka],” she says. “As a Muslim, it’s Islamophobia; as an educator, it’s basically denying children the right to education, as a psychiatrist, this is a serious mental health issue for the students who only want to study, and as an Indian, it is a violation of my constitutional right to practice my religion freely.”
She adds that this is nothing but a case of “sartorial censorship” where everyone seems to have an opinion on what women can wear.
HYPOCRISY & SOCIAL MOBILITY
For Dr Aafreen Kotadiya, the way she carries herself in the context of her hijab has a lot to do with a finely crafted persona she’d like to present before the world
The way Jamil sees it, the hijab has always been the one element that exposes the hypocrisy of even elitist liberals and mainstream feminists.
“This situation has also allowed mainstream feminists to understand that the hijab actually prevents Muslim students from accessing education and it’s now beyond the classical, stereotypical orientalist approach of hijab as a tool of oppression,” she says.
She points out that while mainstream feminists have always derived feminist inspiration from Hindu iconographies such as the Durga idol or the trident when Muslim women have sought to do the same with Islam’s iconography and imagery, oppression suddenly comes into the picture.
“You might argue with the logic of the hijab but it’s not as black and white,” Jamil explains. “We need to understand that for many Muslim women [who come from conservative backgrounds] the hijab is also an empowering tool of mobility. It allows them the ease to get educated in spades like Aligarh Muslim University or spades like Jamia where they might feel safe and get quality education at the same time.”
In Syeda’s case, during her interactions with clients or when she gives guest lectures, the hijab remains a concrete, overarching presence. It centres her, allows her to articulate her thoughts effortlessly, bolsters the self-assured way in which she presents herself, marks her gait and adds grace to her poise. “It’s important to understand that the hijab is not a reflection of my identity but my identity itself,” Syeda explains.
For Mahira, the software engineer, beyond the soul-affirming effects, the hijab is also a safe space when her mental health is in a downward spiral. It was only last week when she held her own against a “paralysing panic attack” triggered by disturbing visuals of the Ukraine war.
“I was home alone because my husband had to go for a two-week-long business trip to Dubai,” she says. “I switched off the news channel, drew the curtains, wore my hijab, and sat quietly in the dark. For many, a woman sitting home alone this way is an incredibly sad visual. But in moments like these, the hijab elevates itself and becomes perhaps the strongest support system there is.”