Feminism in a Hijab?

Before you skim through this article and come at me with blazing guns, take a minute to breathe. Count to 10 and tell yourself that this article is an opinion piece. It probably has ideas you agree with and ideas that you don’t agree with. And that it okay. If you have already chosen a few choice swear words for me, or any number of scriptural verses from various religious texts, tell yourself that those don’t need to be typed in the comment box. It won’t change the write-up and will probably only piss other people off.

Without much further ado, let me tell you a story.

There was once a girl called Amal. She was a normal young girl of 15 and had the same kind of dreams and aspirations that her friends had. Her parents wanted her to do well at school and go to college. She wanted to be a doctor and so, she studied hard and made sure that nothing came between herself and her goal.

In her experience, life was kind. As a young Muslim woman growing up in New Delhi, she had little reason to feel that her beliefs had hindered her in any way. in fact, as her sense of her femininity grew, she became more and more inclined to explore what her faith had to say about it.

And that’s when she discovered the meaning behind the concept of Hijab. It was so brilliant. A simple headscarf that would desexualize the spaces she shared with other people, including men. She would be known for her knowledge and her capabilities rather than the style of her hair or the length of her dress. To her, this was an ultimate liberation. And she felt a deep sense of comfort and empowerment in her scarf, something that guarded her modesty, symbolized her devotion to her faith, and de-objectified her. She argued with people who thought the scarf was oppressive to her. And as a modern woman, she knew where she stood on feminism’s grid of intersectionality.

But that was before she realized that another girl called Amal existed at the fringe of her own universe.

The other Amal was born into poverty. And like it often happens, the scarcity of grains was covered up by an abundance of prayer. While daily rituals of worship fed her hungry little heart, they did little to soothe the ache in her belly. And she yearned to do something about it. But she couldn’t. Because she was an honorable girl and her modesty would not allow her to go forth into the world and work. Covered in her scarf and abaya, she had always received a certain degree of respect from the people in her slum. And even though sometimes the heat was oppressive, she didn’t dare take her scarf off. Because to do so would make her fair game to the boys that hung around the neighborhood, passing nasty comments about the girls they often chased around the university campus.

She knew why they did so. Those girls with their long legs were beautiful to them. Their jeans and skirts, and their heels and perfectly painted lips were exquisite to Amal’s young mind. And sometimes she wondered what she’d look like if she could ever dress like that. She was fairly certain that those other girls attracted a fair amount of positive attention also. They probably all had boyfriends who doted on them like they do in the Bollywood movies. And these girls were studying, at the university. They would never be poor and hungry like herself.

Representational Image/Copyright: Ankur Dang

Sometimes, she hated this trap of modesty that she had been born into. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t worn the scarf. She could bet that if she someday found the courage to get rid of it, she would also shed the expectations of purity and piety that came with the scarf. She would be free. And if she could just escape from those boys without getting hurt, she would never wear that dreaded scarf again. But these were idle dreams. For one, she knew that she wasn’t the woman on the TV who said that the scarf was a symbol of freedom and choice. To Amal, there was nothing choice-ey about her attire. Moreover, she wasn’t smart and educated so she couldn’t lie through her teeth. Lastly, she had tried an old lipstick once. It had looked absolutely ridiculous on her thin, plain face, made even smaller by the heavy folds of the scarf.

The other Amal does not belong anywhere on the grid of intersectional feminism. She can’t even pronounce the term, much less understand what her medico counterpart sees in the hijab.

However, her reality is an affront to everything that the educated Amal believes about her brand of feminism. If feminism is a fight for equality of all women to men, then her kind of feminism does nothing for the other Amal.

These are the questions of the two Amals. And while there are multiple arguments to support and oppose both ladies’ ideas, the least we can do is to remember that there can be no easy answers.

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