Muslim Women: Representation or Rosy Appropriation?

The identity of Muslim women in India is a dichotomy between the “the saviours” and “the oppressors” with little or no autonomy accorded to the women themselves. 

Muslim women have not had distinct individual roles in their representation. While the discourse on the oppression of Muslim women has gone to great lengths, more so because of the political agendas that go along with it, the women themselves are seen as ones who supposedly need to be saved from “their own community.”

We are always taken as a whole. The Muslim Women Pity Club which believes themselves to be fighting for our sovereignty see the hijab-clad as suppressed, powerless, and docile. They are yet to cross the threshold of their own homes.

The non-Hijab wearing women are assimilated into another stereotype. We are liberated, opinionated, bold. The flag bearers. The word “choice” fades in the cacophony of biased rhetoric.

For this particular reason, it has become tremendously important to reiterate that women of a Muslim background have as much right to self-representation as anyone else. The discussions about us should necessarily be with us, because we are not here to be perceived. We are here to be asked.

A veil is considered to be the manifestation of a Muslim woman in western culture. Thus all anti-Muslim stereotypes create a crisis for Muslim women who choose to cover in terms of life choices, experiences, and politics.

The myths about the hijab or veil ‘otherises’ these women as either oppressed, exotic or dangerous. The freedom and exertion of one’s power cannot take place in a discussion dominated by clothing.

The narrative that Muslim women wearing hijab are “oppressed” is stimulated by severe misconceptions, many of which are the prejudices of western ideals. Likewise, deciding that Muslim women without hijabs are ‘examples of freedom’ is an assault on their individuality and on the choice of their expression.

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Putting Muslim women in defined roles or images and associating them with any prevalent stereotype is simply taking away their agency, their volition and their right to self-expression.

I, despite being a Muslim woman, do not wear the hijab as a matter of my choice. That should not make me ‘very modern for a Muslim’, as I have been told many times.

I am not making a way for the social and political emancipation of women from my community because of my clothing choices. The only way I could do that is if I use the privilege of my education in a way that gives the underprivileged, unaware, uneducated of them a better life.

Women who cover themselves also have choice, identity, and predilections of their own.

These conscious or unconscious biases are also legitimised and reinforced by the Bollywood sanctioned image of Muslim women, in which a courtesan or tawaif  is prominent. Rarely has a movie been made where the character, if Muslim, is shown to be independent of their religious identity – with honourable exceptions like Pink. They are either damsels in distress who wait for a lover to save them from their strict, toxic household, or will find their freedom only on completely abandoning their religious identity.

These prejudices towards women in Hindi cinema are not always selective of religion, but the frequency of them occurring when a character is a Muslim woman is noticeable. Such representation is as good or rather worse than no representation at all.

We must remember that representation amounts to nothing if it is laced with rosy appropriation – of pain, of oppression, or of liberation.

Nuzhat Khan is an undergraduate student studying English at Jamia Millia Islamia. She is from Lucknow.

Featured image credit: Tanya Jha/LiveWire