Karnataka: 'Wearing hijab doesn't make Muslim women oppressed'

Karnataka: 'Wearing hijab doesn't make Muslim women oppressed'
Karnataka: 'Wearing hijab doesn't make Muslim women oppressed'

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - MUMBAI — Nabeela Shaikh was 30 when she started wearing the hijab. She was the last of three sisters to take to it.

The eldest, Muzna, first wore it when she was eight, inspired by a cousin. She would then wear it depending on the company around her - until, she says, she realized she couldn't "please everyone".

The youngest, Sarah, reached for it at the "lowest point" in her life when her dream of becoming a surgeon was dashed by low exam scores. "It started with things like praying on time," she says. "The hijab came later and it came naturally."

Born to two doctors, the sisters grew up in India's coastal metropolis, Mumbai. Their mother still doesn't cover her head. But when they do, they say, people assume it's out of compulsion.

The hijab is widely worn in India, where public displays of faith are common - but last month, schoolgirls in Karnataka state protested over being barred from wearing it in class and spotlighted the headscarf like never before.

The question - whether Muslim girls have the right to wear the hijab to class - is now in court. The row has sparked violence, divided campuses and stopped a number of Muslim girls in Karnataka from attending classes.

The BBC spoke to Muslim women across India who say they feel angry about the "intrusive nature" of the debate.

"We are constantly reminded that to be accepted, we must give up our religion," said one woman from Delhi. What is drowned out by the public outcry, they say, is the intensely personal nature of their choice.

Those who choose to wear the hijab say it is not solely a religious decision, but one born out of reflection. And those who choose not to wear it say their hair is not a barometer for their faith.

"People don't understand how one can feel empowered by wearing a headscarf," Nabeela says, laughing. "It confuses them so they judge us."

Oppressed is a word commonly hurled at women wearing the hijab - but many point out that refusing to take into account why they do so is not liberating either, and neither is keeping girls out of school because they refuse to remove it.

"Young Muslim women are out on the streets protesting for their rights. And you're still telling me that [these] women can't think for themselves?" said 27-year-old Naq from the southern city of Bangalore, who goes by her first name only.

When Naq decided to take up the hijab five years ago, she says she encountered "the weirdest" reactions.

"My veil unveiled a lot of people's mindsets," she says. "People would hiss at me: Are you oppressed? Are you feeling hot? What shampoo do you use? Some people asked me if I even had hair - they thought I had cancer."

For her, the hijab was also a sartorial experiment - she sees glamour in every drape and drama in the colors.

"People think my hijab is at odds with my trendy clothes and makeup. But it's not," she says. "If I step into a room, I want people to look at me and think, that's a Muslim women achieving her goals, traveling the world, and is flourishing."

Other Muslim women - like Wafa Khatheeja Rahman, a lawyer in the southern city of Mangalore - say not wearing the hijab does not make them any less Muslim.

"I didn't wear it because it does not align with who I am - and no one can tell me to wear it," she says. "But just like that, nobody can tell me I shouldn't wear one either."

Wafa's mother never wore the hijab either - but she says she grew up with faith all around her, listening to stories of not just the Prophet but also women in Islam.

"The Prophet's first wife was a businesswoman, while the second rode into battle on a camel. So, are we really as oppressed as the world wants us to believe?" she asks.

There was a time when Falak Abbas hated the thought of covering her hair, an unusual choice in Varanasi, a conservative northern city.

But she was 16 when she saw Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Prize winner, on TV and changed her mind.

"Her head was covered, but she sounded so powerful. I got inspired and decided to cover my head too."

Her convent school objected, saying the hijab clashed with the uniform, which was a long tunic and trousers.

Falak alleges that for three days she was barred from class - she even missed a biology exam. When she protested, the school called her parents and accused her of misbehaving.

"They said, if I wear a hijab, it will cause problems not just for me but also the school as everyone will find out I am Muslim," she recalls. "What's wrong in being a Muslim?"

But she relented after her parents told her not to "jeopardise her education over the hijab".

Eight years on, watching the scenes from Karnataka, she says she is once again overcome with "deep anger".

Khadeeja Mangat, from the southern state of Kerala, is also indignant over the scrutiny.

Her school banned the hijab overnight in 1997 - the ban was later overturned, but Khadeeja wonders what will happen in Karnataka.

"Everything is in front of you - the constitution, its values and our voices," she says. "Yet we are made to relentlessly defend ourselves, even at the cost of our education."

'The way people see you can be really consuming'

While the court hearing is ostensibly focused on wearing the hijab in the classroom, Muslim women are anxious about how the verdict will play out in a highly polarised India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government.

Simeen Ansar, from the southern city of Hyderabad, says the hijab is being turned into a subversive symbol for "political gains".

"I grew up with Hindu girls who covered their legs under their school skirts, a fact that seemed no more remarkable to me at the time than seeing Sikh boys wearing turbans," she says.

"But when it comes to the hijab, Muslim women are reduced to binaries. I am traditional and oppressed if I wear one, modern and liberated if I don't."

She says she and her sister started wearing the hijab, but gave it up soon after because their choice was never completely accepted.

While her sister faced discrimination at work, Simeen says people gawked at her in places where they didn't expect to see a hijab-clad woman - the gym, a bar or a party.

"The way people see you can be really consuming," she says.

And this is a fear echoed by many Muslim women - that now more than ever, the hijab is all that people will see.

It's an anxiety that is making Wafa, who doesn't even wear the headscarf, follow the hearing closely.

"Even when I'm at work, I put on my earphones and follow the [court] proceedings," she says.

She is worried how this will affect friends and family who do wear the headscarf.

"You take away my hijab, what's next? My name is still Arabic. Will I have to change that too to get respect from you?" — BBC

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