I am a day scholar at my university and an incident worth recording happened to me the other day while I was leaving my locality to catch a rickshaw because I was running late for my morning lessons. I took my seat in the rickshaw in front of a girl clad in a navy-blue headscarf and a man who sat beside her, who I guessed was in his fifties. Not paying them an ounce more attention than required, I gave them an unmindful smile so as to not come off as discourteous. I noticed the man was talking under his breath in the first few seconds that the rickshaw began to accelerate. Elderly people often had the habit of mumbling to themselves so I let it go until the realization dawned that his mumbling was directed towards me. He kept talking to me in a way I couldn’t tell until I finally caught the words Muslim. Dupatta. Western. Hijab.
He tried to tell me, an absolute stranger, an elderly person but nonetheless an absolute stranger, that it was fine for me to wear western clothes as long as I adorned a headscarf. He told me that since I was a Muslim, it was my duty as a woman to observe Hijab, I could have been a Hindu for all that he knew. It was unasked for and it felt like an imposition of his beliefs on me. To not cover my head, remains a choice and never in my nineteen years had I been questioned about it. Had his words been crafted together in the form of a question, I would have been gratified to explain my position to him on the subject concerned but he wasn’t inquisitive by nature. He hurled his opinion at me, point-blank because he was an elderly man which he thought gave him the privilege to do so.
His behavior threw me off for some time, made me bitter but I refrained from replying because of some of the ideals that had oddly inculcated themselves into the frame of my being, without me ever consciously trying, they had seeped into my character.
Finally, the discomfort from his verbal abuse had become so painfully evident on my face that he chose to stop. That day I came to many important conclusions, the first was that my university had given me a safe haven, where I met a plethora of people every day, where I could practice my beliefs even when they might have been questioned but were always tolerated because my university appreciated its diversity.
The girl in the Hijab signaled to me to lighten up as the man got down a little further ahead. I don’t know what I had done to evoke her attention towards me but she opened her mouth to speak and from her mouth fell flowers, rhododendrons, irises, daisies, and sunflowers, looping and winding like creepers and bougainvillea climbers. Her words twisted and turned around me, only to cling to my meanders, she spoke beautifully, her sentences were perfect, they did not house one ill-formed word or one that wasn’t pleasing to the ears, she strung her lofty choice of words tactically, she said her words of reconciliation and I said nothing. I said nothing but I didn’t ask her to stop. I hoped she wouldn’t stop. I said nothing and she kept talking. Her words working their magic, acting like a balm, they soothed any wounds I might have sustained in battle. She apologized before she got off, probably embarrassed by the way that man had made the community I was supposed to belong to—look. At that moment, she seemed divine, absolving his sins, her vicarious atonement.
The truth is, she never really left because the words she said have stayed with me. I didn’t feel ashamed, guilty or embarrassed anymore. I had just felt sorrow towards that man who had decided to represent my beautiful people in a wrong light.
Nowhere in the Quran has the word Hijab been used to refer to a woman’s veil, that does not mean that the word does not appear in the holy text at all. The word Hijab appears in the Quran in the context of a physical barrier, separation or seclusion. Before I met this girl, I had always criticised what I thought was an extremely medieval practice but she gave me the ability to see things differently. I pondered on what the Islamic feminists had always been talking about, what made them see this, 1400-year-old symbol of oppression as a symbol of liberation? I do not believe in Islamic feminism myself because any type of feminism that works for the liberation of a particular section of feminists is not my feminism, in fact, it is no feminism at all but, there’s a but here.
The veil in Islam was introduced 1400 years ago and over time, it has come to mean many different things. Its role in today’s world and in the lives of Muslim women is different from what it was 1400 years ago. Turkey in its attempt to quickly modernize had banned the headscarf from being worn in public institutions, women voluntarily sported headscarves and asked that the ban be lifted. Wearing the hijab can lead to instances of harassment in societies of the west and just sporting the hijab has become so tabooed that wearing it in the face of Islamophobia is an act of defiance, an act of rebellion. More and more women now wear the hijab as a choice in the West and that is how Islamic feminists turned the hijab, a symbol of oppression to a symbol of expression.
Before the girl was leaving, she told me that she understood the way I must have felt because she was questioned every day for the choices she made, she was questioned because she chose to espouse the veil and she knew the cost of living by one’s choices and she was ready to pay the price, every day. It restored my faith, maybe not in religion but in humanity. She was a stranger and yet we shared an understanding, an understanding that grew from being women, from sharing the same history, from facing the same oppressions, the same confusions that confounded our heads, from taking part in the same struggles, from making the same sacrifices. It was the only time ever that I had felt a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of home. That was the first time I had felt that I was suited to be the part of a community and that was the day I knew that being a woman and a woman above all was the only concrete part of my identity. I felt a sense of oneness with the community of women and the women of my community.
She told me to be sanguine about my choices because I made them. Her eyes had light, her words had wisdom, she had insight. I confided my silent agony in her that day and she offered me solace.
Image Source: Feminism in India