I used to think wearing an abaya was not an issue in India, until I started wearing one after finishing high school. (An abaya is a full-length outer garment worn by some Muslim women. It’s like a cloak and unlike a burqa, doesn’t cover a woman’s head and face.) For teenaged me, wearing an abaya had nothing to do with my religious beliefs, it had more of a fashion quotient. Gradually, though, it became a part of me, a part of who I am; the abaya became my identity.
When I first started wearing one, nobody seemed to have any issues with my choice – not my family, the society I lived in, the new friends I made. The closest I ever got to receiving a negative comment was when one of my father’s friends accused him of forcing me to wear an abaya.
Soon after, I moved to Delhi from Patna to join Ramjas College in Delhi University. There, my colourful, self-designed abayas got a lot of curious attention. On of the first days when I wore a bright white one, people roaming around north campus and in my hostel wondered if I was a foreigner, some said “She is a Saudi”. For kicks, my friend and I went along with it for a bit.
Of course, I had my fair share of judgmental questions and comments such as “you must feel really hot wearing so much clothing” or “This is so bad, why can’t you be like us?” Statements like these just passed through me, leaving no effect whatsoever.
My first encounter of discrimination happened at a premier multiplex movie hall when I went along with all the girls in my hostel. I was singled out for special checking. At first, I thought it was routine, but then later realised I’d been the only one pulled aside because I was wearing an abaya. It was a blow for me, but with passing time, I forgot the issue.
By the time I graduated from DU, those three years had made me immune to ignorant comments and behaviour. People wouldn’t rent to me because I was a Muslim abaya-clad girl. And being from Bihar carried negative implications of its own. I’d become familiar with such things, they seemed to slide right off me.
Somewhat jaded, I moved to Bengaluru for further studies. There, despite being the only student in an abaya, no such comments came my way. Perhaps because I was at the kind of university where students were supposed to have a certain kind of perspective on the world, so they pretended to rise to those standards. I say ‘pretended’ because my clothing choices still prompted many people to talk about me, just not to me. However, for what it was worth, this was the place where I received the least amount of scrutiny for my abaya.
I encountered my first major hurdle when I set foot into the professional sphere. After graduating in Bengaluru, I returned to Patna and started looking for teaching jobs.
In 2017, I applied to a prestigious school in the city and was immediately called in for an interview. I went dressed in a black kaftan abaya with a black headscarf, my face uncovered. After the initial small talk, the principal launched into an explanation about the school’s dress code.
He told me three things. First, that I would have to dress professionally; second, I wouldn’t be allowed to wear abaya; and the third was more of a suggestion – that I would be more comfortable in a different school, which had a Muslim name and probably a Muslim management. The principal kindly offered to refer me to that school.
I tried to negotiate with the ‘no abaya’ rule and asked if I could wear a headscarf or even just cover my head with a dupatta. The answer she gave me was, “We do not endorse any religion in this school, the moment you ride on the school bus you have to uncover your head”. In the end, she asked me to give a teaching demonstration the following day.
However, on returning home, I realised I didn’t want to work at that school after what had happened. So, I wrote an email saying I did not want to compromise further and declined the offer to do a demonstration.
After this experience, I took a break from the job search, only returning to the job market in 2018. This time, I interviewed for a teaching position at a school in my neighbourhood. It had a Muslim name and so I presumed its management would allow me to wear an abaya to school.
On the application test, under the question ‘Why do you want to join this school?’ I wrote about the student composition of the school and how it caters to people from different economic backgrounds. Then I added that I was assuming I’d be allowed to wear abaya to teach.
When I was called to interview for the position, I was greeted by the principal who shared her office with the director of the school. After some initial questions, she addressed the real issue at hand, saying the school wouldn’t allow the abaya because “this is a girl’s school and most of the teachers are female.”
I countered with the obvious, “No ma’am, there are many male teachers as well.” In fact, the director she shared her office with was a man, seated only a few feet away from us. The principal waved away my concern, saying, “We are a secular school, we will not allow the abaya.”
I tried to negotiate, asking if I could wear a headscarf if not an abaya. The principal replied in the negative but the director piped up saying headscarfs could be allowed. Surprised, the principal agreed.
I left baffled. In fact, I’m still struggling to understand what my attire has to do with religion. It may in some way be related to my religion but am I not allowed to have any say? Where is my right to choose? How can I be singled out and stripped of my right to wear what I want? And how is my abaya a threat to you being secular?
How does me wearing an abaya make me a preacher of a certain religion? Is it impossible for girls like me to get a job without giving up our freedom of choice? My dress, my choice, my identity is a hurdle in my professional life. Either I don’t understand secularism or I think there is a flaw in the way secularism is practiced and propagated.
Featured image credit: Georgie Pauwels/Flickr, CC BY 2.0