Iíve been asked a number of times about why I wear a dupatta/scarf/thing/kaapor/burqa (itís not a burqa)/silent hand gesture to the head/veil/ headwrap or, my preferred term, hijab, on my head, covering my hair on a daily basis. Ever since I started wearing hijab ten years ago, the question emerges and re-emerges in new and familiar avatars ó verbal and non-verbal, compassionate and judgmental ó in diverse environments and contexts by an assortment of curious souls.
I imagine that the first thing a stranger ó a potential colleague, friend, teacher, fellow feminist, landlord, student, airport security officer ó notes about me is my hijab, accompanied by my usual ensemble of jeans, converse shoes, eye-brow ring, and American-Pacific-Northwestern-English accent. Some folks ask me about my hijab immediately. Once, a stranger asked me on the metro ride from Park Street to Kalighat station. Some folks take their time with their enquiry, like my colleague, who after many months of working with me in an NGO, flashed the question one random day and later confessed that the entire staff was curious. Some ask with direct words: So, why do you wear that scarf? Some, with indirect words: You really must be hot in there, na? And some never ask. They interpret their own meaning, or it just doesnít matter to them. Recently, to my surprise and delight, my Ammi, who also wears hijab, asked me why I choose to wear it. She said, ďWomen wear hijab for many different reasons. Whatís yours?Ē
Every time I explain to someone why I choose to wear hijab, my answer changes depending on whom I am speaking to (a Muslim or non-Muslim, a man or woman, a seemingly open or judgmental person) and my own evolving articulation around my meaning of hijab.
Answer No. 1: Iím being subversive.
This is the honest beginning of a longer answer.
Answer No. 2: Iím oppressed.
Iím being sarcastic here. If you have any preconceived notions around my lack of agency in terms of my body, I hope this rhetorical answer will encourage you to rethink.
Answer No. 3: Because I like to wear hijab.
I love my hijab just as I love my piercing, my jholas, my belts, and my shirts. Itís me and itís my style. Its an accessory I take pleasure in wearing ó the texture, the colors, the patterns. There are times when I donít like to wear it, especially when I practice yoga or go out dancing. And so, when I feel like it, Iíll take off my hijab and enjoy the difference.
Answer No. 4: A longer answer (which unfolds over multiple conversations).
For me, growing up as a child in the United States surrounded with Gulf War rhetoric and living in a post-9/11 world, saturated with images of Muslim women as oppressed victims of patriarchy, Iím invested in challenging Western and increasingly global stereotypes of Muslim women. I choose to wear hijab as a way to give visibility to my identity as a Muslim, alongside my other identities as educator, feminist, desi, aspiring poet, community volunteer, and beyond.
Like many women, I encounter patriarchy everywhere: in the secular United States of America, in mosques, on American television, in Islamic khutbas and sermons, in Bollywood cinema, and on the streets of communist Calcutta. And like many women, I strive to challenge patriarchy, through personal-political actions. Under Western eyes, a woman wearing hijab is not progressive. Sheís not feminist. And she does not stand for social justice. By wearing hijab everyday, I act in solidarity with other women around the world who choose to do the same. This marks a collective effort to subvert mainstream conventions of feminism and womenís agency. I am a Muslim woman with agency over my mind and body, just as much as any woman, Muslim or not, who continues to struggle and navigate through a globally patriarchal world.
I deeply care about values of equity and choice in my own community. In my hometownís growing Muslim community, more and more women are starting to wear hijab, for reasons varying from modesty and piety to protection and Allahís will. I respect my friends and eldersí choices and positions, and at the same time, I vocalize my own politics around hijab to challenge monolithic meanings and foster pluralistic understandings of hijab within Islam. Sometimes such conversations frustrate me; other times I am inspired.
I believe women have the right to make choices around their body. Governments, religions, communities, culture, men and media cannot determine what women wear. For the past ten years, everyday I make the choice to wear hijab. And this choice gives me deep pleasure. My meaning and articulation behind this choice evolve every day; they deepen and complicate as I continue to grow and as I continue to engage with every next person, next face, next question, asking: Why do you cover your hair?