‘People Think No Woman Could Wear a Hijab Out of Choice’: Stories of Everyday Discrimination

On September 20, 2022, the government of Karnataka told the Supreme Court that Muslims girls in Udupi were goaded into wearing a hijab to school by the Popular Front of India (PFI) through social media messages. The state government made the argument while responding to a petition challenging the ban on wearing a hijab to school imposed by Karnataka, and upheld by the state high court. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the apex court that wearing a hijab was part of a ‘larger conspiracy’ orchestrated by the PFI to create social unrest.

On October 13 this year, the Supreme Court of India delivered a split verdict on pleas challenging the Karnataka high court order that had upheld the ban. A constitutional bench comprising the Chief Justice of India will now examine whether Muslim girls can or cannot wear a head scarf in school.

As on December 1 this year, there were 69,598 cases pending before the Supreme Court. Out of this, 488 matters are before constitutional benches, which means that they are being heard by five-, seven- or nine-judge benches. The backlog includes petitions challenging the Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, pleas challenging the government’s decision to dilute Article 370 of the Constitution and petitions challenging the constitutional validity of demonetisation. All these pleas have been pending for more than two years. Despite the urgency of matters that have been placed on the back burner, the apex court is being forced to spend its time deciding whether schoolgoing Muslim girls can get an education while wearing a head scarf, a tradition some Muslims believe is integral their faith.

The ban on wearing a hijab in classrooms may have highlighted the Karnataka government’s intolerance towards minorities, but the bias against the head scarf, it seems, is an old one. Muslim women who wear hijabs claim they are used to disapproving glares and people dismissing them as backward and uneducated.

Sheikh Alia’s story

Sheikh Alia, a data scientist with Oracle in Bangalore, has been wearing a hijab since she was 25 years old. As someone who has travelled around the world and gone through immigration and security checks at several international airports, Alia says she has always faced problems with Indian immigration officers.

“Whenever I have travelled abroad, I have faced problems with immigration officers in India. They would inevitably ask me to take off my hijab. I faced this at the Chennai and Hyderabad airports. I have always refused to take it off. I told them that I can push back my scarf till my hairline but that is it. My passport pictures have me with a hijab so I cannot understand what the issue is. I told them that wearing a hijab is not against the rules. At the Chennai airport, I encountered a lady officer who was very stubborn. I offered to go to a private room where I could take off my hijab but she refused. When I asked her to call a senior officer, she let me go. This was in 2009 when I was travelling to Malaysia.”

Also read: Why Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia Wanted Karnataka Order Banning Hijab In Schools Struck Down

In 2011, Alia took up a position at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad as a teaching associate and then as a researcher. It was then that she realised that the bias existed even within so-called liberal circles.

“There were nice people there but there were also professors who looked at me like I was a prisoner who needed to be set free. They assumed that this dress that been forced upon me. There was a really well-known professor who stood and made fun of me in front of others. He said how can you dream of doing a PhD in marketing with your head covered. When I was applying for the PhD programme, one professor sat me down and told me that if you do wear the hijab you will be discriminated against.”

In 2015, Alia moved abroad. When she got back in 2020, things had gotten much worse.

“I was staying with my parents in Goa and I applied for a driver’s license. My license was delayed for three months. I applied in June and all the paperwork was complete. The website showed that the license had been issued but it had not been printed and sent. My dad went to ask them what the matter was, and they told him that it was because I was wearing a hijab in the photograph.”

Alia’s father was surprised by the response because her Aadhaar card also had a similar photograph. Alia then went herself to find out the reason behind the delay.

“When I went there they asked me to take off my hijab. I said I would do it only if Sikh men were also being asked to remove their turbans before collecting their driving license. I asked the lady officer to show me the guidelines that required me to take off my hijab. She sent me to the head inspector who asked me, ‘What is the harm in taking off your hijab?’ After a few minutes of debating and arguing he printed my license and handed it over to me. What do they mean by what is the harm. There are no written rules that say that you must take off your hijab. It was simple harassment.”

Contrary to popular perception that Muslim women are forced to wear hijabs by their families, Alia chose to wear the head scarf herself.

“I do not come from a religious family. No one was wearing a hijab when I started. My sister still does not wear one. My mother started wearing one when she was 45 years old. I was curious. I started reading up and learning about my religion and then I started wearing a hijab. No one was happy about it. My mom made fun saying you don’t like dressing up and combing your hair and that is why you are wearing it. I was working in Dubai at the time and the work environment there is quite friendly towards women who wear hijab. Lots of Arab and non-Arab women wear it.”

Hafsa Khan’s story

Like Alia, Hafsa too decided to wear the hijab of her own accord. Growing up in Kashmir, Hafsa was exposed to political conflict from a very early age. For her the hijab was not just a means of underlining her religious identity but also her political beliefs.

“I was 15 years old when I started wearing a hijab. At that time my mother did not wear a hijab and she still does not. There were many reasons that contributed to my decision including the politics that exists within the Muslim society in Kashmir. It is assumed that women who wear hijab belong to a lower economic stratum. It is assumed that they are not very educated and backward in their thinking. For me wearing the hijab was a mark of protest. There was a slogan doing the rounds at the time – ‘I cover my head, not my brain’ and I was greatly influenced by it. My family, especially my mother, was against it because my father used to work outside Kashmir and my mother felt that it drew unnecessary attention to us.”

After completing her graduation in legal studies, Hafsa moved to Delhi in 2018. She remembers people looking at her differently. Her friends humoured her by telling her that she got stared at because she was a good-looking Kashmiri Muslim and not just because of the hijab. However, conversations in law offices and courtrooms proved otherwise.

“The first question that would always come to me is that you are working, you are educated, and you are still wearing a hijab. My mother-in-law told me that her colleagues think that she forces me to wear a hijab because my sister-in-law did not wear it. I told her to tell them that it was my choice but she said that people find it hard to believe that. That’s when I realised that people think that no woman could wear a hijab out of choice.”

Muslim women in hijab participate in a candle light march during a protest rally over the ‘hijab’ ban in Karnataka, in Kolkata, February 11, 2022. Photo: PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra

Hafsa claims that while questions about her hijab were more polite in the higher courts, comments in the district courts were more unsparing.

“District courts were very brutal when it came to accepting me as Muslim, Kashmiri, hijabi lawyer. I remember sitting in court and recording the proceedings for my senior when someone called me a terrorist. This was inside the courtroom. I was completely taken by surprise. Another time, I was stopped by a group of legal interns who congratulated me for making it out of the ghetto. I don’t remember other Muslims being picked on, but I was, because I used to wear a marker.”

The harassment became more acute during anti-CAA protests in the national capital.

“That is when I started feeling threatened. One evening while leaving my office, I was standing on the road waiting for my driver, when I spotted a group of men chanting slogans. It was the first time that I pulled my hijab down. I escaped that day. The next day I was stuck in a traffic jam on my way to Noida when my car was surrounded, and I was forced to get off. I was four months pregnant. There was a group of men who were taking videos and pictures. They asked me to say, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and I said it, but they still kept crowding around me.”

When the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, Hafsa was pregnant with her first child. She had to go to the hospital for check-ups and scans on a regular basis.

“Every time I would go for my scans, I used to get hateful stares. One of the nurses looked at me and said, ‘You Muslims have spread Covid.  Why are you bringing another life into this world?’”

And it was not just inside the hospital where she felt singled out.

“Our car would be stopped by cops every time we went out. It was easy for everyone to identify us as Muslims because of my hijab. My husband was forced to step out, show documents and explain why we were on the road. I was so anxious and so scared. For someone like me, channelizing fear is difficult because I come from a conflict zone. I have lived with post-traumatic stress disorder for a significant part of my life. I have grown-up having panic attacks. When I went for my delivery, I opted to not wear the hijab but soon after I started wearing it again because that’s what I like to identify myself as.”

The discrimination faced by women wearing a hijab does not just end with them. It usually extends to their families, especially their children, and Hafsa got a taste of it first-hand.

“The first time that I took my daughter out for a playdate I was really anxious because doctors had said that she might take time to speak because she was a covid baby. My child was playing and trying to talk to two other kids. I was watching from a distance, and I was happy. When I entered the room, their mothers picked up their children and left. That’s when that I realised that I cannot deprive my child of a normal childhood. I have stopped wearing a hijab now. Sometimes I cannot recognise myself in a mirror. I am forced to look again. I have had to let go of my beliefs, so my child can have a normal life. Suddenly I am so respected. Earlier no one used to greet me in my housing society. I would stand in the elevator with neighbours and they would look through me. Now everyone is nice to me.”

Also read: Does the Muslim Woman Today Have the Right to Chase Her Dreams?

Shaheen’s story

Thirty-nine-year-old Shaheen (name changed) has been living in Udupi in Karnataka for the last 13 years. This small town near Mangalore has been the epicentre of the hijab debate. It was the Government Pre-University College in Udupi that first barred hijab-wearing girls from entering their classrooms. Shaheen says that the entire episode has been saddening but, unfortunate as it is, the Muslim community is getting used to being singled out over small issues.

“Earlier I used to get very upset but now I have learnt to take it in my stride. The younger ones are having a tough time because schools and universities are being communalised. Udupi is friendlier than Mangalore though. In Mangalore, things can go wrong at the drop of a hat.”

Shaheen wears an abaya or a loose robe which covers her entire body. An abaya also includes a head scarf. She says she started wearing it when she was pursuing her engineering degree from Bangalore.

“I started reading religious texts and they really influenced me. I thought it would be unfortunate if I did not start wearing a hijab because my religion was gifted to me at birth. I did not have to go out and discover it like others.”

She may have taken the decision for religious reasons but there were immediate social consequences.

“What happens is that you get these stares. It really does happen. You can feel the vibes and some people give you really disgusting looks. They look at you like you have come from outer space. I was made to feel like that in Bangalore.”

The hostility that Shaheen experienced was not just restricted to stares and negative vibes.

“I moved to Udupi after I got married. This was 13 years ago. I had applied for my driver’s license. They asked me to remove my head scarf. I felt very uncomfortable, and I refused. The officials there said that I would not get my license if I don’t take off my hijab. It’s the same for Aadhaar. They say that your application will get rejected. I was forced to push my scarf back to my ears. I had the same experience at the passport office where again I was forced to push back my scarf and show my ears. Later I heard that some girls had refused to do so but they still got their driving license, Aadhaar and passports. There is clearly no written rule but problems are created for women who wear hijab.”

Shaheen was born and brought up in Bangalore, but her family traces their roots back to Kerala. Despite growing up in a metropolitan city, Shaheen says she always felt closer to the people Kerala.

“Kerala is a communally harmonious place. People there view each other as human beings, not as individual representatives of a religious community. That is something that I find missing in Karnataka today.”

However, Shaheen’s childhood memories of Bangalore are different. She feels the city changed drastically after it acquired a cosmopolitan character.

“Bangalore is so crowded now, not like it used to be before. Earlier it was very sweet, especially south Indians were very friendly. Now so many people from all over the country have come and settled down there. People from different areas come with their own ideas and baggage. The media is making it worse by spreading Islamophobia. When you wear an abaya and go out and when you go out without one, you feel the difference in how people look at you and treat you.”

Like Hafsa, Shaheen has also seen her children suffer as a consequence of their religious identity. She says Muslim children are exposed to hostility which parents find hard to explain

“When my son was in class 2, he saw another Muslim kid being asked to go to Pakistan. My daughter too had an experience recently. After the pandemic, when schools reopened, she invited a friend to come over for a playdate. Her friend told her that I can’t come over because you are a Muslim. My parents won’t allow me. It’s the parents who are teaching these things to the children”.

Abir Ahmad’s story

Thirty-year-old Abir Ahmad is a former journalist who now works in the development sector. When she started wearing a hijab at the age of 18, she became the first girl from her family to do so.

“I made a very conscious decision to take this up willingly. I didn’t have to ask anyone. I wanted to be very closely represented as a Muslim woman. I like the values of my religion. I thought the scarf would give a clear identify to me and who I wanted to be seen as. I used it to express myself. My family was quite respectful of my decision and they supported me like they do with all my independent decisions.”

While her family may have been supportive, media professionals in some of India’s most respected media houses, judged her instantly and decided that she was not capable assuming the role of a field journalist in Delhi. Despite being let down by people who are considered to be liberal and progressive, Abir chooses to not name them.

“People at a major news network in Film City in Noida made me feel uncomfortable. I was given desk duties but not allowed to go out. I also worked with news agencies and newspapers. When I was finally allowed to go out and report, a prominent politician told me that girls in this day and age should not be dressed in such an orthodox manner. There have been so many incidents where people have made assumptions about me before even speaking to me.”

Also read: The Anti-Hijab Campaign Is a Form of Cultural Cleansing of Muslims That We Ignore At Our Peril

Abir says that no one ever took the trouble of asking her why she chose to wear the hijab. No one asked her if it was her choice or if it was thrust upon her by her family.

“It was always assumed that I belong to a Muslim orthodox family who has extremist views. People make life difficult for you because of the way you are dressed. This is one of the reasons why I left the media. This is why I moved to the development sector because I assumed that people would be more understanding and here, I have found that at least I am able to just be who I am and present myself as transparently as I want. My work comes first, and my hijab comes later.”

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Abir believes that people at her current workplace are more understanding and accommodative than the people she encountered in the media industry, but some degree of bias does exist. “I know people talk about me but at least not to my face. There are those glares that people give.” Abir says that “statements like Muslims are like that only” are not uncommon. She says, “the entire Muslim community is stereotyped. They ask, you are so educated, why are you wearing a hijab? As a minority group, despite my educational privileges and the background, I have to prove to everyone that I am an open minded individual. I have to constantly explain myself and show that there is more to me than my hijab.”

According to Abir, the normalisation of Islamophobia begins at home. Its something that she had to face as a hijab wearing girl in college as well.

“In college, so many students would come to me and ask me about terrorism and Islam. They would ask me why Muslims eat so much meat. It shows how children are conditioned at home in a certain way. There is an othering if Muslims that happens at home. Making children not accepting of different cultures and backgrounds.”

As Indian Muslims struggle under the shadow of harassment and violence, Abir says the solution lies at home.

“The way to stop this could perhaps be that we start sensitizing our family, our children and society in general. That you talk about vulnerable communities without any othering. Talk about them as one of your own.”

Abir’s concerns are the same as all Indian Muslims who are being forced to wonder if their motherland can provide a safe future for them and their children.

“I have never shied away from going to temples of cover stories but I worry about how others would see me. Tomorrow when I have children, I wonder what kind of background I will provide them. There should be an environment where I should be allowed to open up about my festivals, my food and culture. That environment has been lacking and is only becoming worse.”

Takbir Fatima’s story

Thirty-eight-year-old Takbir Fatima is an architect based in Hyderabad. She was born in Hyderabad, but her family moved to Saudi Arabia when she was only four years old. She moved back to India in 2002, at the age of 18, to study architecture. At that time, she had already started wearing a hijab. Speaking about the increasing prejudice against the hijab, Takbir says its recent development.

“It’s a very recent thing that I am noticing. I moved here in 2002 and there was no discrimination. Hyderabad has a mixed culture and there is a balance between cultures. I was studying in a Christian college which was very cosmopolitan. Other than the regular teenage kind of stuff, I did not face any discrimination. I have been working since, but I have never faced discrimination. I have travelled for conferences, worked in different offices, but no one seemed to have any issues. It was only recently that I faced discrimination at the passport office and when I applied for my Aadhaar.”

When Takbir and her mother applied for their the Aadhar card in 2013, they were asked to push back their scarf and show their ears.

“The people at the desk were Muslims. They said that if you are not showing your ears, you are risking your application getting rejected but we were firm. It was not something that we were willing to do. They were not very insistent, but they thought it was required. We saw many people there removing their hijab at the first instance, but we decided not to. Ultimately, we did get our Aadhaar cards.”

In 2019 when Takbir visited the passport office with a request for renewal, she was met with open hostility.

“This time they asked me to remove my scarf. I said this is not required. They said it was the rule. I had already looked up on the official passport website and it has very clear rules and images of a lady in a hijab. One has her face covered and it says the correct picture is with the hijab with the ears covered. They have similar ones with Sikh men in turbans. The people who are handling the process belong to a private agency. They said it’s a risk you’re taking. They made me wait for an excessively long time. There was one government person who was very rude, and he said that I was not following the rules. I was also very strict, and I told him that I knew what the rules were. I told them that I am willing to take the risk and I am okay if the application gets rejected. Of course I knew that it won’t get rejected because there is no such rule.”

Seemi Pasha is an independent multimedia journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached at @seemi_pasha on Twitter.

Featured image:

A hijab-wearing student walks past a worker painting a wall to conceal a pro-hijab slogan written on the wall, outside a college, in Hospet, March 16, 2022. Photo: PTI