The Everyday Weight Of Wearing A Hijab In India
Several Muslim women who wear hijabs share their stories to highlight the discrimination, from disapproving looks to outright insults, they face everyday in India in both their personal and professional lives.
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 Islamic 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 of December 1 this year, there were 69,598 cases pending before the Supreme Court. The backlog includes petitions challenging the Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 and pleas challenging the government’s decision to dilute Article 370 of the Constitution. These 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. Here are some of their stories:
Sheikh Alia: "They assumed that this dress had been forced upon me"
Sheikh Alia, a data scientist with Oracle in Bangalore, has been wearing a hijab since she was 25 years old. As someone who has traveled 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 traveled 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.”
In 2011, Alia took up a position at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad as a teaching associate and then as a researcher. It was then that she realized 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 had 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.”
I realized that people think that no woman could wear a hijab out of choice
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.”
During the holy month of Ramadan in Kolkata
Hafsa Khan: "Someone called me a terrorist"
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 humored 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 realized that people think that no woman could wear a hijab out of choice.”
I have stopped wearing a hijab now. Sometimes I cannot recognize myself in a mirror.
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.”
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?’”
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 realized that I cannot deprive my child of a normal childhood. I have stopped wearing a hijab now. Sometimes I cannot recognize 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.”
Shaheen: "They look at you like you have come from outer space"
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 epicenter 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 communalized. 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.
You can feel the vibes and some people give you really disgusting looks.
“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.”
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”.
“I wanted to be very closely represented as a Muslim woman. I like the values of my religion."
Abir Ahmad: "People have made assumptions about me before even speaking to me"
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 make life difficult for you because of the way you are dressed.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
Seemi Pasha is an independent multimedia journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached at @seemi_pasha on Twitter.