The Hijab Has Arrived: Identity in the Time of Dissent and Conditional Allies

The hijab has arrived.

As a young adult, I never saw a single young woman in hijab in the Indian mainstream media, no one whom I could relate to, or whose style I could emulate, or who could serve as a role model.

The hijab and Muslims in general were long-neglected by media and Bollywood, except to show women taking off the hijab to symbolise their newfound liberation, or non-Muslim women using burqas as cloaks to hide their identities while creating mischief or sneaking away from home.

Covered women were mocked as backward, looked down upon as ignorant, pitied as meek, controlled, oppressed, unable to raise their voices. After all, what kind of woman with agency would opt to cover herself?

Only with the current wave of feminism have women fully begun to realise how deeply the hold of patriarchal and societal expectations, especially those of heterosexual men, dictates what women do with their bodies and how they present themselves. Women are recognising that not everyone’s choices need to be the same, yet that they must be respected and fought for.

But India is still catching up.

Even recently, hijabis, who stood up to share their educational backgrounds and their professional and personal achievements while asserting their choice, their right to wear the hijab, were patronised and deemed to have been “conditioned” to believe that it’s by choice in a TV segment by “progressive liberal journalist” Barkha Dutt.

“Conditioned” the way a kidnapped person would gladly obey their captor due to Stockholm syndrome, or (radicalised?) the way a suicide bomber becomes indoctrinated to believe they’re fighting the good fight.

Muslim women were once again deemed unfit to think and choose for themselves, and fit only to play the role of the victim who should be spoken for by other, stronger, liberated saviours. What patriarchy did then, liberals are doing now.

In the wake of Indian Muslims being specifically targeted, lynched and, more recently, historically-Muslim universities ransacked, student protesters brutalised by the police, and the Prime Minister of India making a clarion call to “identify” the violent “by their clothing,” when Muslims began to chant La ilaha il Allah (there is no God but God) – the very fundamental tenet of faith in Islam – as a part of the protests against the Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act, it was disappointing to see certain ‘balanced voices’ on social media discourage Muslims from asserting their religious identity or shouting Islamic slogans at protests against a law that threatens to strip indigenous Muslims of their citizenship.

This paradoxical advice is so blindly hypocritical that it exemplifies the deeply-embedded Islamophobia in even the most liberal media outlets, public figures and self-proclaimed allies. (Not to mention that just an oath of faith appears like Islamist extremism to Shashi Tharoor.)

In Indian culture, secularism never meant homogeneity and erasure of diversity. The ongoing protests are inclusive of all faiths and people from all backgrounds. Indians across class, age-groups, political affiliations and gender are seen actively, enthusiastically and willingly participating in protests against the fascist government. They are standing up to save the constitution from being adulterated into something entirely… unconstitutional.

Also read: I Am a Muslim. Here’s Why I Wear My Religion on My Sleeve

But if any part of this fight is about any one religion, that religion is Islam.

Just as self-proclaimed saviours only wish to support those women who remain weak and victimised, conditional allies in this movement wish to remain supportive only if we work within the confines of the definition of assertion and dissent that they provide based on their comfort levels. Chanting the Islamic declaration of faith, wearing the optional skullcap, wearing a hijab lies outside their comfort zone and rattles them.

The hijab in India, especially in the metros, has been ridiculed and looked down upon and was applied many negative connotations over generations because such identifiers of faith make the majority– right-wing as well as liberal – feel uncomfortable and intimidated.

Hijab-shaming was so rampant that many women felt pressured to take it off, not only from society, from their peers, from their employers, but also from their own Muslim families. It was not because appearing outwardly Muslim and fearing for their physical safety that women took off the hijab, it was mostly because of discrimination and fear of being outcast by society.

What about women who choose to wear the hijab (for reasons they shouldn’t be required to share) and will not concede to take it off? How do we protest as secular, free of religious markers?

We can never be free of religious colour; we are visibly identifiable as Muslim. We don’t have the luxury of pretending we’re not Muslim or passing for liberal/ secular/ progressive/ upper-caste/ Hindu. We carry the burden of identification, but we also wear the label with pride.

We don’t follow the norms of dress code dictated by society and fashion of the majority. In the face of discrimination, we wear this badge of honour with unfaltering commitment. The pressure to remove it only strengthens our resolve. What could be stronger than that?

Unpopular as he may be, I quote Dr Zakir Naik, “If the label shows your intent, wear it.”

And we wear it. With dignity, with pride and with courage, in precarious times like these.

We are not in want for allies and supporters who have worn the hijab in solidarity, such as the Prime Minister of New Zealand did out of respect to the Muslim community and victims of the terror attack on a mosque. Young women all over the world join hijabis during awareness drives to experience how it feels to wear the hijab for a day. During the Women’s March in the US, people held up posters depicting hijabi women wrapped in the American flag, asserting that this is what an American looks like, too. Indians are not really known to give up privilege, though.

It saddens me that people in countries where most Muslims are relatively recent immigrants or descended from immigrants embraced the right to don this marker of identity long before India did, where Muslims are an integral part of the tapestry that not only built the civilisation and fought for its independence, but also helped build the nation after independence.

Most importantly, given a choice to migrate to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan during the Partition, our ancestors chose to stay in India and contribute to it. And we have made the choice to follow Islam, to wear the hijab. Our constitution certainly allows us to do so.

Also read: As a Muslim Woman, I Can’t Get a Job Without Giving Up My Freedom of Choice

But the hijab has finally arrived.

Today, the hijab is a political symbol as much as a cultural or religious one. Covered Muslim women are at the forefront of the revolution that is currently churning in India. Long-neglected by mainstream media, we are now making news, and there’s no dress code for that. It is finally accepted that the Muslim community is a target of discrimination, and Muslim women are more persecuted by society in public than controlled at home.

The strength, bravery, intelligence, persistence and resilience of Muslim women in hijab is clear in live HDTV for the whole nation to see. It has been recorded in the pages of history for posterity. Muslim women are the face of these protests. There is no doubt that Muslim women don’t require saving, but can save the country themselves.

These protests have also seen non-Muslim Indians wearing the hijab in solidarity for the first time ever, such as in a church choir in Kerala dressed up in Muslim cultural attire and the stance by a fearless teenaged Hindu girl who wore the burqa, challenging the prime minister to identify her by her clothing.

The greatest achievement and gift of this revolution is the unity it has revived in the people of India.

It is high time for the hijab to be accepted as normal, not something strange that cannot be understood. It is time to accept, understand and embrace. It angers me that the majority is learning this now, but better late than never at all.

Dissent is now serving as a muse for protest art, and much of it depicts themes of inclusiveness, diversity, pluralism, and celebration of differences.

It makes me proud to see someone like me leading from the front and gaining credit for it, immortalised in art, not as an anomaly, but as the norm.

The hijab has now entered the mainstream, and will be seen everywhere, on TV, in the movies, in pop culture and cartoons, on posters and T-shirts. And I am certain it will be “seen” less in the streets and in offices and on public transport, but will blend in as any other outfit. It is as “normal” as blue jeans, and as integral to the idea of India as the dupatta.

No young Muslim girl growing up today will say she didn’t have relatable role models who looked just like her.

Takbir Fatima is a full-time architect, entrepreneur and educator, and a part-time traveler, thinker, tinkerer from Hyderabad. Find Fatima on Instagram @talkistania and read

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty