Once more the hijab made news. The Supreme Court came up with a dresscode for a repeat All-India Pre Medical Test (AIPMT) last month to put a leash on cheaters but managed to stir the hornet’s nest with its ruling on the wearing of hijab.
In UK, France and Netherlands similar debates over the headscarf have erupted but the one in India was a first. In another first, India celebrated World Hijab Day this year on February 1, an annual event since 2013 to chase away prejudices about the covering. Girls in Lucknow were the first to respond to Bangladesh-born New York girl Nazma Khan’s call to women both Muslims and non-Muslims to experience the veil. From Kolkata to Kochi, Bombay to Bangalore, more and more city-bred girls in their teens to thirties are “willingly” taking to the veil as an act of underlining their power to make a choice that challenges the stereotype of headscarf-wearing women.
As opposed to the reformist 70s when educated Muslim women started laying aside the veil, donning of the hijab to flaunt their religious identity seems to be the new order of the day. Hear it from Sharnas Muthu doing her PhD on dignity of women from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi: “One never questions a girl in sari or salwar. Then why hijab? There’s no compulsion. It’s me.” Ummul Faisa, an MPhil student in JNU smiles: “I’m no longer the only hijabi girl on campus.”
Despite the initial awkwardness, Shaiqa Janna had a point to make as the only girl in her family to don the hijab at 15. “The hijab cannot stop you from growing.” Now 19, Shaiqa is studying to be a journalist and keeps a blog called ‘With The Scarf | murmurs underneath’.
“Man, I look so photogenic in my hijab!” chirps Safa Siddiqui, 26 a freelance writer in Bombay who had never seen her mother or sister in a veil. “I was a hijabi at 22 and warned I may not find a media job. I faced rejection and my hijab was a reason they cited.” Before her next interview, she sent out an alert. “I’m a hijabi and it doesn’t come in my way.” She landed her first assignment and it’s been four years since.
The drift owes itself to easily available Islamic literature in English and simplified text, scholarly sites and apps that have replaced the local maulvis and scriptures previously limited to Urdu and Arabic. “The Quran is no longer a book we only kiss and hug but read. It’s helped me understand that the hijab isn’t derogatory. I wear it with pride,” says Mueena Dawood, 35, from Kochi.
Uzma Naheed, who works for the rights of Muslim women, observes, “I haven’t seen such confident girls in hijab. Impressed by the progressive movements, women did away with the hijab. Now their daughters are going back to it.”
Mariyah Gour Ghori, head of Sociology at Rizvi College, Mumbai, remembers being an exception in her burqa and sports shoes when she joined college. “After the 1993 Bombay riots, girls were either giving up the hijab to blend in or dropping out of college. No one wore it out of choice but for acceptance. I’m glad to see so many of my students now wear it without inhibition.”
“Call it a new wave of feminism!” sums up Aysha, who runs an international school in Bangalore.
And these hijabi feminists have swag too. Blogs, pages and video tutorials like Hijab Swag, Funky Hijab Love on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and YouTube is where the fashion forward hang out. The in-thing? “Camel hump style of tying your hair in a high bun under the hijab, under-scarf, brooches and the umbrella cut burqa,” informs Shaiqa.
The local darzi too is passe. Islamic boutiques sell designer and imported abayas and hijabs that can cost up to a lakh. Calcutta got its first Islamic fashion store in 2010, Bangalore has seen a couple and Kochi too in the last two years. In Bombay, one can now venture beyond Mohammad Ali Road or Bhendi Bazar and browse rows of showrooms in Bandra, Jogeshwari, Madanpura and Mira Road. If online shopping is in vogue, these women have their carts full with veils in different silhouettes and embellishments of crystal, zari, net and laces from Gulf and Arab shores.
It’s getting easier for Muslim girls in the country to carry their drape like a badge of honour in a world full of skeptical opinions about Islam. But does it risk seclusion or can it become an enabler? “The norms one imbibes from childhood gets internalized but the social context for the hijab has changed. Women wanting to wear it by choice come from a ‘we-feeling’ that also gives them a sense of identity. At the same time, a deeper study of the origins of the hijab is necessary to assess the good or bad,” explains Nandini Sardesai, sociologist