There is only one thing that holds me back from talking about “God” publicly and that is my love for Her. I never talk about it mostly because I do not want to give my clumsy words an occasion to wreck something so pure as Her, something so hard to find. Many “find” Her in the most unexpected of places. Some through learning, through books, through knowledge; some in music, dance and other art-forms; some in a battle for survival, like the one we are presently fighting.
And some, like me, find it in a broken heart.
This journey of “finding” is a difficult one, which is why I would be more than careful with my words before touching upon something that has to do with these lived difficulties, the traumas of realisation, of self-doubt, of denial, of acceptance, and of our gradual friendships with God. Especially, while writing on something that some, both literally and figuratively, hold very close and some hold very far — the hijab.
Since this piece of cloth may mean different things for different people, to homogenise it into one single idea is to homogenise the entire population of Muslim women and to betray and deny their lived experiences as both hijabi and non-hijabi Muslim women.
The “hijab”, literally meaning “curtain”, “barrier” or “partition” in Arabic, has increasingly become limited to meaning “headscarf” in contemporary usage. Since there is a debate over how the Arabic word “hijab” came to be understood as a mandatory headscarf for Muslim women ordained by God, I choose to write the word in italics, or use the words “headscarf” or “veil” interchangeably in this write-up, taking into account that some Muslim women understand the word beyond its “headscarf” connotation and some choose to attribute modesty in other reformative ways apart from covering their hair. Since this piece of cloth may mean different things for different people, to homogenise it into one single idea is to homogenise the entire population of Muslim women and to betray and deny their lived experiences as both hijabi and non-hijabi Muslim women.
Having lived the first seven years of my life in Udupi, where pre-university students are now protesting the hijab ban in colleges, and the remaining seventeen in Calicut, the city with the highest Muslim population in Kerala, I grew up in a pretty “hijab” donning environment. My mother wore it, my grandmother wore it, all my cousins wore it and so did the women in their families. A lot of my relatives practiced the niqab (the face-veil) as well. I was so used to seeing women cover their heads around me that I too had subconsciously associated all Muslim women with the headscarf. I even remember, as a kid, asking a non-hijabi Muslim why her hair wasn’t covered. She had told me that she simply “didn’t like it”. “Not liking” the hijab was an entirely new concept for me because the only type of Muslim woman I knew was the one who had her head covered. My older sister, too, picked up the practice soon enough without anybody having to tell her, much like turbans, bindis or any other customary/cultural practice. She was simply following something that was being practised by everyone around her, as would I, most naturally.
But here’s the catch: I didn’t.
While there are Muslim women who interpret the headscarf as a direct commandment from God (which if not obeyed would be deemed a sin) and practise it all their lives, there are also Muslim women who reject Islam for the same reasons.
As I grew up a non-hijabi, and as my older sisters (including my first cousins) gradually stopped wearing the headscarf for their own reasons, things took a big turn. Although it was a relatively normal atmosphere in the privacy of our homes, protected from judgements and any sort of societal coercion — my mother never hinted at us to wear it and my father had only one default answer, “read on it” — we were entirely confused outside of it. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbours, friends, strangers, they would all have the same look of curiosity/repulsion and would pop the same, old question — “where’s your thattam?”. My classmates from school would introduce me to their parents as being brought up from a “different culture” so that their concerns about my exposed head could take refuge in the fact that my mother’s side had roots in some district called Udupi, a place they had never heard of, although it had little to no relation to my headscarf, or the lack of it. As we grew up to own social media accounts and opinions, and left our homes for college, our exposed heads and appearance made us infamous. The only way we could tone it down and not upset our grandparents and other relatives was by attempting to dress appropriately according to the circle we were in; an extra shawl/scarf for family visits, a ban on bindis when we were back home, and maybe some abayas (a full length garment) for our niqabi relatives. Yet, our attempts at a double life failed. Mostly due to the environment in our home which we grew up in; one which did not demand us to be anything we were not. We failed at it because we were not taught how to live one, and so we kept forgetting that we could. The ones who really took the hit was our parents, who directly dealt with everybody’s concerns; phone calls for my father asking why we were the way we were and sympathetic looks for my mother who was unfortunate enough to give birth to two “un-islamic”, wayward girl children. While the side that inherently hated everything that had to do with Islam celebrated us, the one that protected the gates of paradise like it was their family’s property loathed us.
I personally know so many women who have taken so long to unlearn the traumatic experiences of religious rigidity they underwent in their childhoods, before they were able to befriend the word “God” and look at the headscarf, or other aspects of the religion, like prayer or the Qur’an in a less fearful perspective.
While there are Muslim women who interpret the headscarf as a direct commandment from God (which if not obeyed would be deemed a sin) and practise it all their lives, there are also Muslim women who reject Islam for the same reasons. These women believe that the hijab is mandatory but consider it an oppressive tool enforced by misogynistic Muslim men and believe that no woman, if she had a real choice, would opt for the hijab and if at all she did, was nothing but delusional. It is with the latter that the mainstream, “secular-liberal” (read: brahminical) population usually side with as it helps fuel their anti-Muslim tendencies and makes it convenient for them to hand over the credit of patriarchy to Muslim men, quietly unburdening themselves from it. It would be wrong to say that these ex-Muslim women have the same intentions as the anti-Muslim “seculars” or the genocidal right-wing do because most of these Muslim women choose to walk out of Islam, as a religion, due to the harsh treatment they have received, in the form of physical/verbal/mental abuse, mostly from the hands of the toxic, misogynistic male figures in the family, community or educational institutions through a rigid, violent and male-centric practising of religion. These are the vulnerable stories that are further amplified as the quintessential Muslim (woman’s) experience by the system, portraying Muslim women as a universally weak group that desperately needs to be “saved” from the hands off this “inferior” culture and handed over to the much “civilised” west, or in the case of India, a brahminical (guised as secular) Hindu-Rashtra. To make things worse, many Muslim men, in order to save the religion and themselves from being demonised, argue back on the same lines. They end up denying (or even justifying) any misogynistic or violent practises in their community and go as far as to even prove that patriarchy itself is a product of the capitalistic west. This game of tossing the credits for patriarchy back and forth leave Muslim women, in the words of Mona Eltahawy, “caught between a rock and a hard place”. She says, “both the rock and the hard place are more concerned with each other than they are with Muslim women. They speak over our heads — literally and figuratively. Our bodies — what parts of them are covered or uncovered, for example — are proxy battlefields in their endless arguments. It matters little what we women think because ultimately, both the rock and the hard place agree on and are enabled by patriarchy”.
But amongst all this fuss, what was really at stake was our liberties as Muslim women to actually explore what the veil was, in all its historical, sociological and mystical beauty. I personally know so many women who have taken so long to unlearn the traumatic experiences of religious rigidity they underwent in their childhoods, before they were able to befriend the word “God” and look at the headscarf, or other aspects of the religion, like prayer or the Qur’an in a less fearful perspective. Even my usage of the pronoun “she” for God is a feeble attempt to unlearn years of conditioning — an image of an abusive, fearful, masculine power — we’ve been taught God to be. I don’t suggest that God is female (since God is genderless) or that everyone should refer to God as “She”, but my association of God with a female pronoun makes Her appear a lot kinder and warmer to me, as if She is close, almost living inside of me. As She rightfully should.
While the worst case scenario for some of us who try to live double lives would be societal outcasting as an entire family, a lot of women have it worse — physical/mental abuse, denial of formal education, strict surveillance or immediate (forced) marriage.
I have known Muslim women who do not mind wearing, or are really passionate about the veil but the minute someone tries to dictate how it should be worn, they remove it in rebellion. Similar to the Muslim women who grew up as non-hijabis by custom but started to wear it as a form of resistance against anti-Muslim regimes that attempts to strip Muslim women off of their hijabs. These are the women who discovered their God in a political environment, in a battle of reclaiming and re-discovering their identities. There are also those Muslim women who wore the headscarf because their fathers told them to and then removed it after marriage because their husbands told them to and when asked what they wanted, replied with “whatever they wanted”. Suddenly, the male figure had replaced the God figure, but the female figure couldn’t care less about it, she was just surviving through. I know many Muslim women, the closest of my friends and family, who live a double life — hijabis at home and non-hijabis outside. While the worst case scenario for some of us who try to live double lives would be societal outcasting as an entire family, a lot of women have it worse — physical/mental abuse, denial of formal education, strict surveillance or immediate (forced) marriage.
While all of this is a difficult life for women, it is more than just a “difficult” life for women who still believe or want to explore their faiths. I stress on “who still believe” because here, I only address women like me who are stuck between this rock and a hard place, and not those who have faced little to no difficulties within the community or those who have rejected Islam because they have. It is more than difficult for women who still believe because this life drains us of our natural capacity and yearning to learn our own religion or aspects of it, to explore our histories as Muslim women on this land, to understand the historical and sociological position we are in, to deepen our spiritual selves and really question everything around us — is there a God? Do I want to befriend Her? Or not? Do I want to read on this, talk on this, think about this? Without anybody telling me what I should believe? There are many days when I’ve felt like expressing myself through the headscarf and many times that I’ve tried to incorporate the headscarf into my wardrobe/lifestyle, and not as a way to keep my grandparents and relatives happy or protect my parents from anymore “concerns”. Yet, all the uncomfortable weight around this volatile subject renders me reluctant.
No Muslim woman should face any sort of misogyny; from her own community, or the Brahminical, “secular-liberal” population or the imperial west that tries to constantly strip her off of her clothes, and quietly suffer one of them in order to resist the other.
No Muslim woman should be told what the veil should mean to her, especially by men, and then go through the tiresome process of unlearning and learning in order to finally make meaning of her own faith. No Muslim woman should undergo the burden of explaining her own agency and right to voice her opinions to anybody who believes she doesn’t have one. No Muslim woman should face any sort of misogyny; from her own community, or the Brahminical, “secular-liberal” population or the imperial west that tries to constantly strip her off of her clothes, and quietly suffer one of them in order to resist the other.
Quoting Jasmin Naur Hafiz, a friend and writer, “For me, choosing to wear a hijab is that refusal to see myself in the language of the people who stereotype and tame me. On the other hand, the exclusion that non-hijabi Muslim women face in these [muslim] circles, and the constant fear of not being Muslim enough is real. For some of them, a refusal to wear the hijab is a refusal to tame themselves to the language of these self imposed guardians of religion, a refusal to see religion in their terms alone. Both of these are powerful choices. And for me, the hijab, the presence or the absence of it, are both important resistances, monumental in their own ways”.
Read this piece in Malayalam here.