Walk a Mile in My Hijab to Feel How Oppressed I Am

Jacinda Ardern chose to wear a scarf in solidarity with the Muslim citizens of her country whose congregation had been terrorized and massacred in their place of worship on their holy day. This act of terrorism didn’t just happen at the spur of the moment. It obviously had a backstory to it, one of hatred toward a particular community, a hatred that had been brewing in some circles and in some peoples’ hearts for a while, that manifested itself in planned acts of terrorism. It was imperative of the Prime Minister of New Zealand as a leader to respond to this in an appropriate manner, offering condolences to the targeted sections of her country and promising protection and reparations. Many men wore traditional clothes and women wore the hijab in solidarity. Amidst public mourning, broadcasting the Azaan publicly, the traditional Maori Haka to honor the dead, the hijab is what seems to have caught the world’s eye.

When interviewed, one Kiwi woman, Bell Sibly, said, through tears,

“If anybody else turns up waving a gun, I want to stand between him and anybody he might be pointing it at. And I don’t want him to be able to tell the difference. Because there isn’t a difference.”

The simple reasoning is so powerful. The National Council of Islamic Women in New Zealand was consulted before the gesture of wearing the hijab, and it was only worn once they accepted it.

However, this gesture and the entire incident found many naysayers in India. Surprisingly, it was the liberals who had a problem with Kiwi women wearing the hijab out of respect and solidarity. It seems to me that being liberal has a limit, because some liberal Indian journalists and public figures, especially women, began, at a time of pain and solemnity for the world’s Muslim community, to divert attention to their belief that Jacinda Ardern’s gesture was mere tokenism and lacked depth. Some even called her irritating. When she began to act, and her commanding actions began to go well beyond tokenism and proved much deeper and more meaningful than any world leader who had been in this situation in the past, many Indian liberals felt it fitting to highlight the inappropriateness of wearing the hijab, it being a symbol of “oppression.” It seemed essential to unleash a tweetstorm to remind the world of the widely-held belief from the not-so-distant-past that Muslims are backward, Islam is violent and the hijab is oppressive to women. It was indigestible to them that a white woman in power in a “First World” nation chose to don a Muslim symbol with respect and sincerity, and that other liberated white women followed suit. I was taken aback because I thought this was a misconception we were well past and educated about. Either we’ve gone back twenty years or some people have never moved forward from twenty years ago! That the hijab is a symbol of oppression is a regressive belief from the pre 2000s. The hijab is not in itself a symbol of oppression, even though it has been used to oppress women in some communities or countries. The hijab is a symbol of modesty and of piousness in Islam. The hijab is a symbol of women’s liberation and agency for some, of religious identity for others, and for still others, of culture. It symbolizes what the wearer wants it to symbolize, and others who don’t practice it cannot assign meaning to it on someone else’s head. To Jacinda, I believe, the hijab was a symbol of solidarity, mourning and equality. (Yes, she is so loved and admired now that we are on a first-name basis.)

Just as the institution of marriage is abused by certain people and some women are married by force or abused by their husbands and their families, does not make marriage itself a symbol of oppression. Marriage, to many, remains sacred, and a symbol of love, of dedication, of family. Procreation is also enforced on some women by their husbands, families or communities, and yet, it cannot be referred to as a symbol of oppression as many, many woman have children because they want to. The hijab, marriage or procreation being misused as a tool of oppression by some does not make it a symbol of oppression for all. I can’t name a country where marriage isn’t abused and used to oppress women; it happens in all countries, and it is widespread in ours. Further, the hijab is not the only article of clothing that can be used for oppression and neither is the ghungat to which is it often compared in India. I know many friends who don’t cover but aren’t allowed to wear skinny jeans. I know women from Hindu families who aren’t allowed to wear anything other than the saree after marriage. This does not make the beautiful, flowing, feminine saree that many of us love to wear a symbol of oppression! Don’t even get me started on the tradition of women changing their surnames after marriage.

Kiwi women didn’t say, “Remove your scarves to look like us and protect yourselves.” They said, “We will look like you.” Sikhs who were attacked after 9/11 because they were mistaken for Muslims said, “We won’t clarify that we are not Muslim, we’ll never say, Go and attack that man, I’m not the one you’re looking for. We don’t throw others under the bus, our faith does not teach us that,”

I wish I could be of such service to someone someday.

Jacinda has been called opportunistic and concerned about optics. Yes, she is opportunistic. She took the opportunity to show the world what an ideal leader is, what a real leader should do in times of crisis. She took the opportunity of being a woman to make the hijab mainstream, to normalize it as an item of clothing of some of her people, albeit a very small minority, by donning it as a non-Muslim leader.

Heads of State have worn the scarf on their heads before, can they be considered oppressed?

What is oppression? A lack of freedom, a lack of choice. Taking away agency, speaking for someone else who is not a minor or mentally ill or an animal. Just as the hijab was becoming normal and accepted, some people want to bring the focus back on its misuse in controlling women.

To be honest, women who wear the hijab are oppressed. We are.

We are not oppressed by our families, our husbands, our communities. We are oppressed by secular society, women’s rights activists, liberated educated intellectuals. We are oppressed by other women, who don’t find beauty or significance in our choices, attempting to invalidate them and minimize our agency. The hijab-bashing has gone over our heads.

When you advocate for women’s rights, for the right of women to uncover, you must, if you aren’t a hypocrite, also advocate for women’s right to cover as they please. They’re two sides of the same coin, and you cannot have one without the other. Or if you don’t understand or have authority over a concept, refrain from commenting on it. Women who don’t wear the hijab, aren’t even expected to choose to wear it because they’re not Muslim, or don’t even have the choice of wearing it cannot expect to have their views about the hijab validated.

Perhaps there is something missing in our conversation on the hijab in particular and women’s clothing in general. We, hijab-wearing women, have done some disservice to the topic by not talking about it beyond a limited argument: should it be allowed or enforced? Neither. It’s much more complex than that.

There are more countries in the world that don’t allow the hijab than there are that enforce it.

Do you know how many women are prevented from wearing the hijab and how many are forced to take it off? There are laws that guarantee human rights, freedom and equality, and yet, women are robbed of their freedom by their families, friends, husbands, coworkers, bosses and society. You’d be surprised to know how many families don’t allow their daughters to cover, and how many of those daughters resort to carrying their scarves in their bags and covering up at a distance from home, just as there are teenagers who change into shorts in a friend’s house because their families don’t allow it. You’d be surprised to know how many women who have chosen to cover are pressured by their husbands and in-laws to discard the hijab. You’d be surprised to know that many women who wear the hijab out of choice choose not to marry men who believe women should wear the hijab: there is nuance here. Though it would be comfortable to marry someone who believes in something you already practice, it takes faith, self-determination and farsightedness to reject a proposal from an otherwise good man who even has an opinion on what a woman should and shouldn’t wear. I don’t believe there is anything more empowered than that. You shouldn’t be surprised to know that many women who wish to cover refrain from doing so because of the hostility and ridicule towards the hijab in their workplace or in society. I have known women who have relocated to new cities when they decided to start wearing the hijab.

Someone once asked me, Do you wear it by choice? And I had to bite back my laugh. I wanted to ask, Were you ever given a choice to cover? Hijab is so abnormal to the majority that it seems ridiculous to even pose this question.

As an uncovered woman you can choose to walk out and have the privilege to not be judged, not have your parents and your family and your entire community be judged, never have to worry about a fanatic ripping your scarf off your head because of hatred toward your religion, toward your God. Along with regular harassment of women, hijab-wearing women have a layer of hatred and bigotry to deal with. To step out into the street means to prepare oneself for the male gaze. It’s not something you can prepare for. To prepare oneself for the judging female gaze is even more difficult.

In some parts of the world, we think twice before stepping out, not because we are prevented by our parents or made to cover by our husbands. We are not allowed to exercise our agency because the weight of assumption is on our heads. We hate the stares, we hate the way ignorant people look at us and speak slowly as if we don’t understand English or speak it better than them, we hate how it’s assumed that if we work we could only be teaching, like we couldn’t be CEOs of international companies, like we’re not sufficiently educated, like we couldn’t have higher professional degrees from world-renowned universities.

I am all the above and so are most of my hijab-wearing friends.

And no, we don’t ask each other if it was a choice. Because I know how I started wearing the hijab, convincing my parents who thought I was being ridiculous to want to wear it at age 10. I know how we’ve fought passport authorities and Aadhar card and driving license officials who (illegally) asked us to remove our scarves for the ID photos. I know how we’ve been made to wait for hours to wear us down into uncovering, or threatened that our visas would be rejected if we didn’t uncover. A Western woman journalist interviewing you can give you very negative vibes about your headscarf in person and then write about it in a very poetic and positive way, because that’s the narrative her paper has chosen. This positive narrative the liberal media tries to portray does not exempt us from being discriminated against in real life!

It doesn’t stop at discrimination. Turkey, which is a Muslim-majority country, banned the headscarf for decades, which prevented many women who adamantly chose to wear the hijab from participating in public, from the right to education and work, from even stepping out covered. There is only one country in the world where covering the head is mandated by law for all women. There are many countries that have banned the hijab, and many, many more where a woman can get killed for wearing a religious headscarf.

Technically, I am allowed in my country to practice my religion freely and openly. I have as much right as you to participate, to walk the streets, to attend a concert, to raise my voice, to advocate for egalitarian leadership in my country, to sit at the table on the board of an educational institute and lean in, to be heard and taken seriously, and yet I have to work twice as hard to get half as far. It’s a bit of a hindrance when you are forced to defend your most basic human right: liberty.

Muslim women are underrepresented in the mainstream media and hijabi women not at all. We are only given airtime if the topic is about our hijab or our religious and political affiliations. (Or triple talaq.) Other things we may excel at and have expertise over don’t seem to matter. If we’re not in public discourse now, we’re further marginalized by discrimination. I have to tame down my arguments and self-censor so that I can be heard and read and some part of my voice can reach people, because something is better than nothing at all. It is difficult for us to move forward in our careers and be a part of society wearing a hijab because we are otherized by society. Wouldn’t it be easier to just take it off as say, “I can’t succeed if I don’t remove it?” No one would hold us accountable or judge us for it. It’s not our fault. Yet we fight and fight for our right to wear the hijab.

Do you know the kind of courage and fortitude it takes to cover yourself with what you thought what a symbol of your piousness and modesty and your very personal connection to the Almighty, but what has now snowballed into a religious symbol and political declaration that’s bigger than you?

Knowing all of this, how can we even be so tactless as to ask, is it by choice? If my hijab is my choice, what of the ignorance of those who cannot accept it? Isn’t it a conditioning since childhood that made them narrowminded? Or is that a choice they made in adulthood?

No, my hijab not a choice, it’s a compulsion for me. If I don’t wear it, I have failed myself and bowed down to a discriminatory system and a regressive society that does not accept me, my faith, my clothing, that does not accept my freedom of choice, that tells me I am not normal, and expects me to be mainstream and assimilate to look like everyone else. I could not face myself in the mirror as that kind of coward.

I cannot declare that others are cowards if they aren’t as determined or ziddi (as I have been called many times) or don’t believe as strongly about defending their rights and the rights of others. I recognize that I am privileged to be able to do what I want without having to think of my next meal or my safety or the need to escape abuse. Others may not be as privileged.

I am privileged that respectable men stand at a respectable distance from me because of my dress. I am privileged that the renowned architect who was giving me an award on stage asked for my permission before shaking my hand to congratulate me. These are my privileges and you don’t know how good they feel until you walk a mile in my hijab.

In an interview on Munsif TV, I was asked to address young people directly and I urged my hijab-wearing Muslim sisters to come out, make yourself visible, make your presence felt, seize the narrative because if you don’t speak up you will be spoken for and talked about. It’s our presence in the public sphere that makes bigots uncomfortable and that’s exactly where we need to be.

I cannot speak for other women and I don’t know their experience or their limitations or their inclinations. I can only speak for myself. And I don’t accept that anyone else, man, woman, Muslim, non-Muslim, educated or ignorant, speak for me either.

So why are some women so comfortable speaking on my behalf? Is it because it makes them feel less oppressed to believe that there are others who are more oppressed than they are? Is their empowerment so relative and conditional to others’ disempowerment?

Saying that the religious hijab is not a symbol of piety or modesty but a symbol of oppression is misappropriation of the most unfair sort! It is a way of snatching away our right to assert ourselves. By calling it conditioning, they have undermined our hard-fought battle to make others accept that it’s a choice and not an imposition. This is a way of trying to push us to the back of the line again. Covered women, get behind the “liberated” ones. No, we will not!

So, self-proclaimed “liberal” “feminist” “secular” sisters, stop harassing us. We don’t need to be saved, and we now know you are not our allies. We are more than capable of saving you. If you need our help, we will save you and re-educate you and liberate you from the shackles of ignorance.


My favorite tweets on this topic (in no particular order):

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