The fight for the hijab: Muslim women lament their lack of freedom to choose

As the world marked International Women's Day, hijab-wearing women in India, Afghanistan and France say rules that categorise women should be done away with

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When the world was busy fighting the pandemic, women were also protesting in the streets and on social media for their right to express themselves through their clothes.

Noureen, 25, from Kochi in India, knows only too well how policies that dictate what a woman can or cannot wear can impact their life and self-esteem. She graduated from a university in Karnataka, in southern India, where some institutions have denied hijab-wearing students access to the school, claiming it violates dress code. The move triggered several protests in the country.

Noureen describes the situation and increasing discrimination against Muslims as unjustifiable. “The hijab is my faith and the closeness it makes me feel with my creator is what motivates me to wear it,” she says.

I wear [the hijab] because I feel like it sort of protects me. It’s who I am, it’s a part of me now
Almas, student

To fight back, a group of Muslim students filed a petition saying these rules violate their rights under India’s secular constitution.

Almas was one of those students. In her second year at Government Pre-University College for Girls, Udupi, she says the meaning of hijab is “to cover”. "It’s usually that girls wear it to preserve their beauty, so not everybody gets to see it.”

It’s a security to some women. “I wear it because I feel like it sort of protects me. It’s who I am, it’s a part of me now.”

Hiba Sheikh, 22, from Mangalore, feels the same way. “The hijab is like a shield to us.”

It’s not something that’s forced upon these women, says Almas. “I chose to wear it. No one can force you to wear something.”

Women across the world are fighting for their right to wear the hijab how and when they want. Kilarov Zaneit / Unsplash

Fathima Usman, 20, also from Mangalore, echoes this sentiment. “None of the parents, family, force them to wear it. Some Muslim students wear it while some others do not. It is an individual choice and no one can interfere in their private life.”

Women like Fathima, Hiba and Almas grew up seeing their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers don the hijab. It’s part of a generational handover that makes the act of wearing the headscarf special.

“I’d see my mum, I’d see my sisters wearing it, the older women in my community wearing it, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Almas says. “I wanted to be a part of something.”

“They are trying to break us down and not give us education,” says Fathima, referring to conflicting dress codes across India that allow women of other faiths to wear their traditional garments, but not Muslims.

“It is not the issue of the hijab but their mindset.”

Women in Afghanistan fight for their freedom

Elsewhere, in Afghanistan, women are experiencing the opposite, where they’re being forced to cover up. Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s and 2000s, the long blue burqa and chadari were mandatory for women. While they have insisted this will not be the case again, a number of mandates, such as banning girls from higher education, have been cause for alarm, and women have taken to the streets to speak out for their freedom of choice.

Maryam, a journalist in Kabul, is one of those women, but she, rather than having her voice heard, has ended up in hiding.

Maryam wears the hijab, but strongly believes how you wear it should be a choice.

“In Islam, the hijab doesn’t have a colour and shape,” she says. “For me, as it says protect yourself, I will follow those rules when I feel unsafe and uncomfortable.”

In every society, it is a problem, women are asked to not wear this or that, go there or not

How Maryam dresses may change depending on how safe she feels in her surrounding environment. “For example, when I was in Dubai I was wearing jeans, a top and my headscarf, as you might have seen a lot of Muslims following the same practice.”

Her choice to wear the hijab and speak out for like-minded women, however, never wanes. “If you think something is not right, stand up against it.”

Now, she says, since the Taliban took over her home country, “we have to fight even for our most basic rights, like going to school, working, and leaving the house".

“We as Afghan women can’t believe how dramatically things changed for us overnight.”

Until last year, Afghanistan was a country of poetry and art, one that embraced the youth and their vision of the future, says Aqele, 17, a student. “In the cinemas, in the cafes, in shopping malls, the youth cohabited in a very positive environment. They would play guitar, men and women would discuss poetry and politics.”

All of the progress made in the past two decades was effectively destroyed in the matter of two weeks, she says.

“I do have hope that women and our allies will fight for us.”

France moves against the hijab

Many of those allies are in Europe and America, but even in some western countries women are also losing their freedom to express themselves through clothes.

In France, for example, the government has tried to ban women who wear the hijab from participating in sports tournaments for reasons of "secularism and neutrality”.

I think bodily autonomy is just one of those rights that we will have to learn to fight for because no one should tell us how to dress
Aisha Ali

“In every society, it is a problem, women are asked to not wear this or that, go there or not,” says Hiba. “But we have the freedom and we are not supposed to obey them. It is our life and we can do anything.”

Instead, across the world, women are still being judged by the clothes they wear. “Norms and rules that categorise women should be done away with,” says Almas.

Maryam says now, more than ever, it’s important for women — all kinds of women, and not just those who wear hijab — to “stand up for our rights”.

“We need to support each other and if we back each other, we can achieve it.”

"I think bodily autonomy is just one of those rights that we will have to learn to fight for because no one should tell us how to dress," says Aisha Ali, digital journalist in Pakistan. "And it doesn't really matter what country we are in. I don't think anyone would ever tell a man what to wear and how to dress."

Updated: March 09, 2022, 5:34 AM