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Indian Muslim Women, adorned with their flowy Burkhas, or veiled under the modern Hijabs or Abayyas, have always brought hidden within their identities the doubts of an oppressed patriarchal culture. For the longest time, covering up has been an edifice of sacrifice, oppression, victimization and passive acceptance of being secondary.
The validity of Hijab/Burkha/Parda to identify with a woman’s own identity and her religious identity poses a baffling question, regardless of which side of the Islamic religion you are.
The Quran, the Holy Book of Muslims, consists of various verses of Muslims besides the visible aspects; on property rights, polygamy, testimony etc. which have been much contested in the past, because of their complex meanings showing women in a lesser light.
And when we see an actively practising Muslim woman, we account into our judgement all these factors forming a stereotype on how these women must lead a suppressed life where they’re not able to work, and are constantly denominated by men.
However, as we delved deeper into the lives of the Muslim Working Women in India who have established themselves wonderfully in their respective professions, we found women with voracious voices who helped us break these stereotypes and see Muslim Women in a new empowering light with their faiths. And so our campaign #TheIndianMuslimGirl was started.
Real Muslim Women, Real Stories
Rana Siddiqui, a journalist of 25 years bringing out impactful stories in the field of lifestyle, entertainment, and art in an exclusive interview with Feministaa for #TheIndianMuslimGirl opened up about the reasons behind why women choose to wear a Hijab.
“According to me, women of Islam wear Hijab for different reasons. The first category of these women is those who are confident, and take on the Hijab with their own choice.”
However, this confidence, as she tells us comes with its own hurdles. As she narrates another story of a woman who was alienated by her 20-year-old colleagues after she started wearing a Hijab, we realise how this perception of fear of radicalisation of Muslims is burning greater misconceptions in the minds of Indians than we think.
“People often think that if we start all of a sudden, we are a fundamentalist, we are oppressed, suppressed, and somebody has made us wear a Hijab.” There comes a peculiar change in the way people start behaving and a lot of it, according to her, has come especially after the rule of the new government.
Tanzeela Husain, a coming of age artist, started wearing a Hijab when she was in her 3rd year of college. Despite, having a history of nobody wearing it in her home, once she started studying her scriptures, she started feeling inclined towards the need for her independent identity.
“We are so imbibed in the metropolitan area, I questioned myself, where are our roots? I made a commitment to my faith and wearing a Hijab was something I chose for myself despite the criticisms.”
Doodler as a profession, her criticisms often took a toll on her work when people were apprehensive in reaching out to her. According to her, people used to question her identity as a feminist with a Hijab on and were reluctant in accepting her art.
“People are not able to understand why such a thing like Hijab and religion is required and why at the end of the day, it is just a choice.”
Fouzia Dastango, the first Women Dastangoi(Storyteller), has been creating a ripple of women empowerment through performing stories based around the struggles of women since the past 13 years. As she spoke with us, she told us about her own journey with a Burkha as a performing artist. “I respect Burkha with all my heart, however, it was not something I felt would protect me or something that was forced on me so it was never my choice. And why should I choose to hide behind it? I come from the school of thought that it is the viewer who needs to correct his gaze and not my attire that needs to change.”
This venture on the independence of making a choice is reinforced by Nida Khanam, who’s been an HR professional for 17 years and now an executive coach and the owner of her own cafe The Red Kettle; as she explains how much the way we’re brought up matters in terms of how we view our own religion as well as others’.
“Being independent is our key. If you are independent from your mind, you’re independent. And I believe a lot of role is played by our family. If you’re taught that it’s your choice and it’s your life; what you think comes from there.”
The Question of Faith
The question of Islam has perforated the playgrounds as well. What was initially treated as an ignored culture, now Islamic religion perpetuates terror among the youth.
As the author of the Book Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum, explains her journey of the need to write her book, she tells us how the kids these days are caught in the vortex of identities.
“From the outside, you’re called a Muslim and from the inside, you’re not Muslim enough. I think in today’s time it is the most difficult to be a Centrist and say things as they are”
Nida explains the chaos of identities further. “People have perception first for a woman, and then for a religion. So many times, I have been asked, as a Muslim woman, do I really get to invest so much in myself? How am I still single? How am I allowed to wear western clothes?”
As she breaks down these stereotypes, she explains, no matter what you wear, it’s your demeanour that portrays who you are.
“Ethics are not taught by religion, ethics are taught by the way you’re brought up.” which echoes every much with Nazia who says “Nafrat Mazhab Nahi Dekhti: Hate will swallow up all our kids, regardless of what religion they believe in.”
Nazia explains how we see discrimination in so many ways today, and we can either choose to point it out or choose to build bridges for ourselves to negotiate with the reality of the new world.
This desire to build bridges led her to start an inter-faith Iftaar, where they open their doors during Ramadan to people of different faiths who have never been to an Iftaar before.
“The idea was to introduce people and break stereotypes. From the way Muslim women are, to how our houses are, what kind of food we eat, how many children we have, to what kind of jobs we do; there was a kind of stereotype around every aspect of our lives. The idea was to invite them to come as they are, to sit together, talk, have conversations and simply, know each other.”
As she talks about changing the common narrative around us, she says how important it is to turn the conversations around by simply talking about the positives, the love we can share together and the India that we can build together.
These women chose to establish themselves remarkably in various walks of life without ever giving up who they truly are and where they come from. After many inquisitions and revelations, we came across the uniqueness of these women’s journeys with their religion; laws, society or simply the way they express their spirituality. It was a journey of having the freedom to find their individual identities and how at the end of the day, the divide we might see is not in their beliefs, but in our heads.
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