By Farah Zahidi Moazzam
(April 12, 2010) – I watched the Bollywood film My Name is Khan the other day. The brilliant depiction of an autistic person by India’s leading actor Shah Rukh Khan and director Karan Johar’s surprisingly taut direction made for a good film.
In one particular scene, I felt a lump form in my throat. Sonya Jehan, the actress who plays Khan’s sister-in-law, a working woman living on the West Coast of the United States, has her hijab pulled off while walking down a hallway.
This is one of several expressions of resentment against Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 attacks portrayed in the film. After the insult, Jehan’s character decides to stop covering her hair in public. However, later she puts her hijab back on because she feels incomplete without it.
“It’s me,” she says.
That scene reminded me of my own journey with the hijab.
I discovered my spirituality as I reached my teens. Innately curious, I soon found myself reading the Qur’an in translation, in an effort to better understand its meaning. A few persuasive teachers and friends guided me through this process. As I read, a new world opened up to me. I started to seriously consider wearing the hijab. After what felt like a personal tug-of-war, I clumsily covered my hair for the first time. For someone whose hairstyle was her signature trademark, this wasn’t an easy step.
At that time the hijab was less common than it is now and people were less accepting. Friends and colleagues said that I looked old and unfashionable. As someone used to receiving compliments, I found these asides difficult to handle and soon gave up; that move was an ordeal in itself.
Everywhere I went, I heard comments such as, “See? This is why I don’t do it. People start to wear hijab, then take it off. They’ve made a joke of it.” Inwardly, I kicked myself, ashamed of my inconsistency. I needed more time.
A few years later I started wearing it again, this time as a more conscious decision. This time I felt respected, protected and true to what was right in my heart and mind. This was my choice, without force.
However, there were still days when I felt lost without my hair over my shoulders. Some people praised me encouragingly, saying I looked beautiful with my head covered. Others called me “ninja”, “fundo” (short for fundamentalist) or “Taliban”. Others gave me apologetic smiles, fumbled with their own scarves, perching them on their heads as soon as they saw me.
Amongst all these reactions, the one I most wanted was to be treated as I had always been, like a normal person. I was a woman making a choice, which is normally perceived as a sign of emancipation. It was strange to me that dressing differently was seen by some as a sign of oppression, or, worse yet extremism.
As the years have passed it has gotten easier. Today, due to globalisation and a more open-minded approach towards life, people – especially youth – are more accepting. My daughter’s teenage friends, for example, are less judgmental than peers in my college days.
Yet even now I have to fight the stereotypical image of a hijabi – someone who wears the hijab – every day. I smile a little more to show people that I have not donned the hijab owing to depression or against my will. And until they hear me speak, people often assume I am conservative, or brainwashed, something my Muslim male counterparts who are bearded or dress conservatively often experience as well.
Through it all, amazingly, I have remained the same person. I want to look and feel good, achieve my goals and enjoy life, but within the framework I believe has been defined by my faith.
I am not angry or bitter. I understand where people are coming from. I only wish they understood where I am coming from.
I have been fortunate to meet people who accept the right of every individual to exercise their freedom of choice. If someone uses that freedom of choice, like me, to dress a certain way, such individuals do not see me in the context of what I wear, but gauge me in light of what I do and who I am.
* Farah Zahidi Moazzam is the Features Editor at Women’s Own magazine and writes about social issues, particularly those relating to women. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Dawn.com Blog.