(This blog has been republished from The Quint’s archives in light of the renewed debate around Muslim women’s choice of wearing the hijab. After it started around World Hijab Day on 1 Feb, the debate in India has been growing sharper after A R Rahman defended his daughter Khatija’s choice to wear a burqa.)
I am a Journalism student who wears a headscarf and that’s my fault.
I expect the people of my country to accept me with the individual identity that I have, and that’s where I am wrong again. ‘Hijab’ refers to the head cover that Muslim women wear when they’re outside.
My journey with the hijab started in 2009. I was in tenth standard when I first wore a scarf after seeing my best friend’s sister covering her head. She was a progressive, fashion-loving, young girl. Then why did she wear this piece of cloth on her head? – was my question. Her answer intrigued me. She said, “Try it for yourself.”
And then, I wore a hijab to my coaching classes. People were looking at me in shock. I, on the other hand, felt at peace. I felt a sense of security.
“Why Do You Do This to Yourself?”
In the first few months, there were times when I wondered if I had taken an impulsive decision. But somehow, I knew it was the right thing to do as I started to feel comfortable wearing it.
My family did not take my decision positively. I am the first girl in my family to wear a scarf. They were apprehensive and advised me to take it off at weddings and parties. The first thing my mother said to me was, “Arey job milne mein bahut problem hogi (Getting a job will be very difficult).” My friends, surprisingly enough, understood me, and continually encouraged me.
It has been eight years since. When I went to college and some of my female friends saw me without a scarf, they said, “You look so pretty without it. Why do you do this to yourself?”
I believe the only things based on which a person should judge you, are your intellect and behaviour. And I feel as confident and pretty in a scarf as I did without it. In fact, it’s liberating. Personal appearance mustn’t count for much.
Currently, I am doing my MA in Journalism. The world perceives journalism as a highly competitive field and it undoubtedly is. But people often tell me that I am the odd one out. A few days after I had begun an internship at a broadcasting channel in the city, I struck up a conversation with one of the editors about career options. He was telling me how I should try to prepare for civil services rather than wasting my time in journalism. Suddenly, another person joined in, completely uninvited.
Let’s call her Sneha.
“What have you wrapped around your head? Remove it.”
“Ye sar par kya pehna hai tumne? Hatao ise. Aise kaise journalism mein chalega? (What have you wrapped around your head? Remove it. How will it work for you in journalism?)”
I just looked at her.
She continued, “If you want to practise religion, keep it in your heart. Let it reflect in your nature. Why do you have to make it a part of your appearance?”
I responded, “So, according to you, if I wear a scarf or a Sikh person wears a turban, it reduces their working capacity or diminishes their skills?”
“Par aise to nahi chalega. Journalism mein to ho hi nahi payega kuch. (But it won’t work like this. You will not be able to make this work in journalism.)”
“Nahi. Matlab ab aise koi maulana toh TV pe news deta nahi hai, na. Tum samajh rhi ho? Koi fayda nahi. Ya toh yeh utaaro... (I mean, you don’t see people dressed like this reading news, right? Do you get it? Either you take this off or....)”
“So, your opinion that I cannot pursue journalism is based on the Indian perspective or global?”
“Both. India ya international, dono mein nahi ho payega. (This won’t work either in India or on an international platform.)
I asked her, “Have you ever heard of Tawakkol Karman?”
“Tawakkol Karman, the journalist, was the youngest recipient of her time to win the Nobel Peace Price. And by the way, she wears a scarf.”
After this, she was quiet for some time and as she was exiting the room she started to give me her valuable advice again. “Chalo bata diya hai maine. Waise dupatta pehenkar nikli hai, journalism karne chali hai. (Okay, I have told you what I had to. You are wearing a headscarf, and yet you have come to pursue journalism.)”
Journalism Has More to do With Investigation Than Appearance
Whatever happened came as a shock to me. Her view that I cannot establish myself as a journalist was her personal opinion. But the way she was trying to impose her views on me felt like a threat. Not only to me, but to all the people who decide to dress in a particular way, according to their religion or personal choice.
I have often been given the suggestion that I should take religion out of my life as it dominates it. As a matter of fact, it is not me who has allowed religion to dominate me as an individual. It is the image which people instantly form in their heads when they see me wearing a scarf or any headgear.
I have been on shoots in unknown places at odd hours. I have travelled through half of Delhi in a day, for an article. Journalism has got more to do with representation and investigation than appearance. There is more to me than a piece of cloth on my head. I urge people to open their eyes and see what their judgemental eyes sometimes won’t let them see.
(Sumaiya Ali is from Lucknow. At the time of writing this article she was pursuing her MA in Convergent Journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)