Beyond the veil: I am more than my hijab

Reshma N C Shah

Whenever Muslim women are discussed there is one issue that runs like a common thread and binds all the conversations together and that is the topic of hijab. The common chorus is that the hijab is forced on Muslim women and represents the worst of Islam. Images of burqa clad women, women in full veils and hijabs are the first thing that comes to mind. Media houses, including the self- proclaimed progressive ones, reinforce the stereotype  each time they show graphics of Muslim women in a hijab when they report on triple talaaq or Muslim society. 

 The question then arises- Is  the fight against oppression of Muslim women going to be a symbolic one of removing the hijab from their wardrobe, and that’s it?  Will the banning of the hijab automatically create a world of freedoms for her? Will she then be truly free of oppression?

Clothing, as many rightly believe, is a personal choice. A. R. Rahman’s daughter chose to wear a full veil for her wedding. That is her choice. Many may respect her choice. Yet some may question the social conditioning that led to her decision.

But in our over zealousness to protest, are we missing the point here? Intellectuals, liberals and progressive thinkers, whatever tag you may prefer, each one of us has a duty to ensure that our cause does not lose direction.

By devoting precious digital space and media bytes to our views on the oppressiveness of the hijab, we are doing a great disservice to the Muslim women. Because we are focussing only on her dress, NOT on the potential she has as an individual.

It is time to move our debate to the next level. If we limit our discussion to the outward appearance of a religion’s dress or diet, we reduce it to just external factors. How does it matter to a Muslim woman in rural India whether she wears a hijab or not if she does not have access to education to live her life on her own terms?  Our protests must take into account what is going on in the mind of the woman behind the veil. Is she happy? Does she have ambitions?  Does she have access to quality education and healthcare?

Conversely,  even in the western world, we have Muslim who are doctors and lawyers and shine in their chosen field, all this while still wearing the hijab. They conduct surgeries, present papers at conferences and travel alone.  They drive, wear western clothes and raise a family and have integrated harmoniously  into the society they live in.

If the expert panelists and opinion makers could stop and reflect about the direction in which they wish to take the fight for justice, we must think beyond the hijab.

If my hijab upsets you, so bit it. But I would rather that you be upset about my lack of access to education and health services that will actually improve my life.  Given a choice, as a Muslim woman in a veil, I would seek your support to ensure that I get to attend school and college.

In the current public discourse on Islam and Women, the hijab is presented as a symbol of oppression.  For arguments’ sake, let us agree. By the same logic then how about women in the flesh trade who are forced to expose their bodies in skimpy clothes? Is that not a symbol of oppression? In the same vein, if nuns are covering their heads, while the priests carry on their daily chores without a head covering, is that not a symbol of oppression?  Historically, too, ladies of royalty used to and still wear a dupatta  in public or when men are around. So are we to protest that it is a symbol of oppression? Closer to modern times, many women politicians wear a saree and pull the pallu over their heads when  addressing public rallies, especially in rural areas. Indira Gandhi, the first lady Prime Minister of India, and a woman who cannot be called conservative or oppressed by any stretch of imagination delivered fiery speeches with a pallu draped over her head. Her  grand daughter Priyanka, with her uncanny resemblance  and a recent entry in formal politics, seemed to have picked up a leaf from her grandmother’s book.  Some of the women leaders of the ruling party also practice the same when canvassing in rural areas.  So when it comes to the veil, we can stretch the whole argument to ridiculous lengths if we try.

It is therefore, imperative to look beyond the external and start fighting for a woman’s right to education, to freedom of movement,  and to freedom to work.  If I live in a Muslim dominated area and the hijab or head covering allows me to move out freely to my school or college, how does it in any way impeded on my personal freedom? If, however, I am not given admission into an institute for wearing a head scarf , then the issue is not one of oppression but of religious freedom. If a student who follows the Sikh faith is allowed to wear the turban to school, is there a separate law that bars a Muslim girl from wearing a head scarf to school? Does integration imply that the Sikh student give up his turban?

History is witness to the fact that integration can be like a salad bowl, with different societies living together in harmony, or it can be like a melting pot where different cultures melt and a new unique culture emerges. America is a perfect example of the notion of America or what it stands for. The country is made of different ethnicities and races. Yet, in just a span of three hundred years, America has emerged as the most powerful country because it has the best of its constituents.  The current political leadership is a manifestation of a worldview that does not reflect the entirety of America and what it stands for. Extremist viewpoints will always exist in any society. But they are always a minority.

We must, therefore, look at what ails the Muslim woman, especially in India. Is it simply the burqa, that black shapeless head-to-toe covering that hides her from our view as she walks along the street, or is there more to her than her burqa? 

By vociferously campaigning for an end to the burqa or hijab, we are creating awareness about her right to dress the way she wants, or, as we think she wants. In the universe of freedom, clothing is a minor matter when much more is at stake.  Fight for her right to education, her right to work, her freedom of religion and her right to a life of dignity.

Reshma NC Shah

Reshma NC Shah

Reshma Nasreen Choudhury Shah is an education consultant based in Guwahati. She is also director of a preschool that is managed by Rivers Education Foundation. Apart from conducting educational and communication workshops, she is also on a mission to bring the joy back into teaching. She is a mother of two daughters and three year old twin boys. Currently she is sharpening her writing skills and learning new age parenting techniques.