[All names marked * have been changed to protect the person’s privacy]
TW: Descriptions of misogyny, mentions of queerphobia and Islamophobia
As public debate rages on about whether or not a hijab is a fundamental right for Muslim women, across varied spaces – from the courts to our twitter timelines – the voices that dominates it the least seems to be that of hijabis themselves, who contrary to the popular belief, don’t carry the singular identity of being just women.
The decision about the hijab that is still pending in the court would decide the fates of multiple hijabis across gender identities and sexual orientations, but the debate about it is being dominated primarily by non-Muslim liberals or conservatives, who both approach the issue largely from a saviour’s lens. The argument primarily revolves around how to rescue the muslim woman from the confines of a hijab without once asking – does a hijabi even want to be saved? Here is what I learnt from my conversations with multiple people who either used to or still wear a hijab.
“My father wanted me to take it off,” says Sadia*, a graduate from Delhi university. Sadia identifies as a cis lesbian woman and wears the hijab. She describes her father as a liberal-in-transition who struggles with a lot of his views but still tries his best. “My father really doesn’t want me to wear a hijab mostly because of how people would treat me due to it. When we first moved to Delhi it was his biggest concern.” She elaborates: “but that’s precisely why I chose to wear it. I am not particularly religious. Sure I do the bare minimum required of Muslims like my daily namaz, but nothing more. I also do recognise the problematic aspects of my faith where my identity as a queer person is concerned. However the hijab is my choice to resist. I refuse to take it off out of fear of discrimination as a Muslim woman.”
When asked about what she thinks a hijab ban would do, Sadia said: “it would just make it harder for a lot of girls to get proper schooling. I am not going to pretend that the community is hyper-progressive and nobody is forced to wear a hijab, but a ban is not the solution. I come from a very small village which only has schools upto eighth grade. If you want to study beyond that you need to leave. Most people are already apprehensive of sending their kids to school, especially girls. A hijab ban would mean a lot of these girls never getting an education. It will further restrict their agency [in public life].”
Similar views were held by Rifat*, another niqabi lesbian in her final year at Jamia. “I remember that my choice to wear a burqa and me coming to terms with my sexuality were simultaneous events. As I realized that I was a lesbian I felt further violated by the male gaze. I felt like locking myself inside the house on some days but that wasn’t possible. Burqa was very convenient in that way. It allowed me to interact with the world while I could still stay locked in.”
Rifat too recalls her parents being puzzled by her choice. “My mother is not a hijabi. On most days her attire of choice is a pair of jeans and a top. She was mildly unsettled when I said I wanted to wear a niqab and I remember it being a long conversation.” When asked how she’d react to a hijab ban she paused for a moment as if really dwelling on the thought and then shared: “You know I have constantly considered choosing a university other than Jamia in the past. Even as recently as last year when some groups basically said that queerness is anti Jamia. This whole incident makes me very sure in my decision to stay here. I’m safer as a closeted lesbian inside jamia than a Muslim woman outside it. Here I live a lie but atleast I live. I’ve spent a decade in the veil. Taking it off feels very… I don’t know I’d feel very exposed in a horrible, horrible way. “
An aspect of the hijab that is seldom discussed is how gendered it is. Noor*, an agender person from Kashmir sheds light on their experience “I didn’t like wearing the hijab. Initially it was just my attempt to mimic older women who were around me but later that very same thing became the problem. People presumed I was a woman when I was not.”
However they also clarified that they didn’t want to take it off. “Transitioning from wearing a hijab to not wearing one was hard for me. I was forced to do it because people felt they had the authority to do that when they didn’t. Giving people the authority to police my hijab would have only made things worse.” Noor describes a traumatizing incident which proved to be the final straw for them. “A few local goons, along with some conservative Muslim uncles, surrounded me and my friends in my car because we were smoking cigarettes. After realizing that I was a local too, they threatened to burn my car down while I was in it. They verbally and physically abused my friends as well, who were non-muslims and [not from the area].”
When asked about what they think about a hijab ban, Noor says “How does that solve anything? You’re basically just policing my choice. Who has asked any of these hijabis what they want?”
Dr. Aqsa Sheikh, a prominent trans rights activist said: “Throughout the globe there are millions of trans kids still being pushed further into dysphoria through gendered uniforms and similar tools. These tools seem to be devised only based on what the majority community in an area wants. How will a kid be educated better in an environment where they are constantly being disrobed? If such a ban was to be introduced in my workplace I would surely be standing with the resisting group.”
The case for a hijab ban is still pending in the Karnataka High Court and students are continuously being forced to pick between their comfort and an education while the court debates the nuances of the issue. The decision is crucial to millions of people across the country who wonder what other harmless aspect of their identity will be politicized next.