The Day Headscarf Became My Identity

“Are you a doctor?” a woman in my neighbourhood asked, her eyes popped in disbelief. I knew the reason behind her incredulity, but to be sure I asked: “Why are you so surprised?” Nothing,” she said, adding nonchalantly, “I mean doctor and hijab… isn’t hijab a sign of backwardness and suppression?”

Though very offensive, but her last question did not hurt me as this was not the first time I had to face such questions. Here in Indian capital New Delhi whenever I travel on the country’s famed, but always clogged Metro train, I often get a whole range of strange looks and furtive glances from women sitting or standing beside me – just because I wear hijab or Muslim headscarf.

At the hospital where I have been working for almost two years now, the patients and their attendants’ keep on asking me the same clichéd question. And my reply has always been the same: Hijab completes me and I feel honoured to wear it.

Per se, I wouldn’t blame these people, as there are elements present in this western (I won’t call it modern) society who are hell bent on projecting hijab as a symbol of backwardness and suppression. All thanks to ‘liberals’ – they have succeeded to a large extent in their nefarious designs.

Such is the level of distortion that if an Islamophobe has got nothing ‘bad’ to write against Islam, he can easily quote any Tom, Dick and Harry to allege that Muslim women are suppressed by forcing them to observe purdah or hijab.

Reams have been written about hijab. We even see debates on news channels discouraging the concept of hijab. In France, a ban was put on wearing burqa (veil) and many other European countries have adopted, or are drafting similar legislations. Today, I would like to answer those who keep on posing such questions to those who observe hijab.

Donning hijab was my personal and an independent decision; it came about only after I could appreciate the wisdom in Allah’s command. This was followed by a sincere wish to please Him, and the decision was not taken under any duress from any male member of the family, which people tend to falsely believe in.

With hijab, Alhamdulillah (All praise be to Allah), I have freed myself from the bondage of the swinging pendulum of the fashion industry and other institutions that exploit females in the name of good looks.

As a child, I can recollect now, I was reluctant to wear the hijab after my mother advised me to. I also remember my father telling her that ‘she is not a grandma’- suggesting that I was too young to be advised to observe hijab.

The decision was not that easy for me. It actually demanded plenty of courage. But it didn’t take me long to figure out why my mother wanted me to put on hijab. And since that day I take pride in wearing a hijab. I don’t see it as a religious obligation only, but it has become an inseparable part of my identity.

Contrary to what the society unfairly sees as a symbol of suppression, I feel elevated, modest and above all safe in a hijab. Considering the evils around us: rapes, eve teasing, and street harassment, I believe hijab safeguards us from such things. Women wearing hijab have expressed that dressing modestly and covering their hair minimizes sexual harassment at the workplace.

I believe all women would don hijab if they understand its importance and the safety it provides. All they need to do is just forget thinking about the negative comments from the society. The world would look all the more beautiful and safe. From my interactions with the women wearing hijab, I can say that the advantages far outweigh any disadvantages conjured up by biased media or sheer ignorance.

Let’s try to understand what hijab means. The word “Hijab” comes from the Arabic word “hajaba” which means to veil, to cover, or to screen. Islam as a religion emphasizes on community cohesion and moral boundaries. Hijab, therefore, is a way of ensuring that the moral boundaries between unrelated men and women are respected. In this way hijab encompasses more than a scarf and a dress code. It denotes modest dressing, behaviour, manners, speech and appearance in public. Dress is only one facet of the total being.

Hijab isn’t only a symbol of piety, but also a sign of inner strength and fortitude. A woman wearing hijab becomes a visible sign of Islam. The aura of privacy created by hijab indicates great value Islam places upon women. Hijab frees women from being thought of as mere sexual objects or from being valued just for their looks or body shape rather than their minds and intellect.

One can’t deny that in some families and cultures women are forced to wear hijab, but this is not the norm. That is clearly Islamic, as can be surmised from the following verse of the Holy Qur’an:

“There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256)

To those who would say that Islam doesn’t ask women to observe hijab, I would quote a verse from Quran, which goes like this:

“O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their cloaks over their bodies (when outdoors) so that they be recognised as such (respectable women), and not to be harmed. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an 33:59).

See Qur’an answers the question about modesty. “…So that they should be known as respectable woman, so as not to be harmed…” – this is all about modesty, not any suppression as many people would like you to believe.

Those who think hijab or say parda is a way of dominating Muslim women by Muslim men should know that Qur’an first speaks about parda for men before it discusses hijab for women.

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things) and to protect their private parts. That is purer for them. Verily Allah is All Aware of what they do.” (30: 24). This guards the modesty of men. People obeying this order of Allah will be seen as modest men in the society.

They should also know there are six criteria for hijab for both men and women. And of the six, five are similar; only one is different – considering the different physical structure of men and women.

When Islam tells women to cover their head and bosom, it tells men to sport a beard and cover themselves from navel to knees. Now those who think by covering head, their beauty is lost, they should also know that keeping beard also hides the face of men.

Since Muslim women are more conspicuous because of their appearance, it is easier for people to associate them with the warped images they see in the print and broadcast media. Hence, stereotypes are built and Muslim women observing hijab are ironically seen with contempt and piety.

This mindset can’t be changed until one is not afraid to respectfully approach Muslim women or men for that matter. So, the next time you see a Muslim, stop and talk to him/her. You will feel, as if you are entering a different world, which is the world of Islam: full of humility, piety, and, of course, modesty!

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