Books Voices

Veil of freedom: Why my mother chose to wear the hijab, and I chose not to

Whether the hijab is a symbol of oppression or a motif for democratic rights depends on the context. Filmmaker Ambarien Alqadar shares the contrasting choices she and her mother made in the quest for self-expression.

From the streets of Iran where women are paying with their lives for not wearing hijabs to schools in Karnataka in southern India where girls are being made to choose between their hijab and their education, this ordinary women’s garment is at present one of the most prominent and potent tools for politics, protest and revolution in Asia, and one that has captured public attention worldwide.

A timely new book titled The Hijab: Islam, Women and the Politics of Clothing (Simon and Schuster India, INR 599) uncovers the diverse aspects of this women’s garment in the personal, social and political lives of Muslims in India, Bangladesh and Iran.

Edited by historians PK Yasser Arafath and G. Arunima, the book features essays by well-known contemporary scholars and writers on a range of issues related to the hijab – from being a symbol of women’s oppression to a motif of democratic rights – and explores personal choice set against historical context.

This excerpt from the essay ‘Veiling/Unveiling’ by filmmaker Ambarien Alqadar is published with permission from Simon and Schuster India.


By Ambarien Alqadar

The few pictures I have from my childhood are those of my mother posing with me in bell bottoms by the Mediterranean Sea. My father had taken up a teaching assignment in Tripoli, Libya, and they made friends with his colleagues who were from all parts of the world. My mother hosted tea parties, dinners and poetry readings and wanted to be seen as a secular Indian Muslim.

I asked her why in those pictures she did not wear her burqa and she told me that it was important for her to claim her Indianness as part of being a secular Muslim. She wanted to let her friends know through her subtle choices of what she wore and what she chose not to, that as an Indian Muslim she had the choice in deciding how she presented herself to the world. She was proud of how Indian Muslims could choose how they defined themselves and often those choices involved navigating the fluid possibilities in the everyday.

In 1984, my family relocated to New Delhi, India, and my father built our home in Jamia Nagar, New Delhi. My mother talks of how she felt comfortable and secure in a neighbourhood where a Muslim way of life came to surround her. The azaan, the morning call to prayer, reminded her of her childhood. It was the kind of comfort she had missed for a long time. The Friday afternoon Namaz on the streets, the smell of biryani and itr, the Eid market and the Ramzan night celebrations were all things she had missed while trying to live as a secular Muslim. She had grown tired of hiding her way of life and spiritual practice that made her feel grounded and connected to her roots. She often spoke of how her sense of security in Jamia Nagar stemmed from remembering what happened in Hashimpura in 1987, Bhagalpur in 1989, Mumbai in 1992 and Gujarat in 2002.

The timeline of these events was interspersed with constant reminders of how she found a new kind of freedom and mobility in Jamia Nagar. As the riots happened in Gujarat 2002, she opened a beauty salon as a place where women like her could find care and community. As part of this, she also wrapped and folded those red and pink bell-bottoms into an attic in our home, started covering her hair and became more “Muslim.” In 2012 while filming The Ghetto Girl I found the bell-bottoms folded and wrapped with care in muslin in a suitcase.

Ambarien Alqadar (Photo: Twitter)

As part of growing up in Jamia Nagar, I had to negotiate two worlds—one for which I was never Muslim enough and one where I was too Muslim. I used to be called a ghetto girl at the Roman Catholic school I went to. My address and name carried a weight and I fought hard to resist it but at the same time there was the fight to be able to wear jeans back home. I was in 8th grade when my father told me it was the last time I could wear it. I remember how my mother had bought a deep blue denim pair with big red buttons to wear to a school end year party.

Colourful clothes day at school became a source of deep anguish for me as everyone wore short skirts and jeans and I had to wear a salwar-kameez. The size of my school skirt and for most of us from Jamia Nagar reached our ankles but sure we found a way to work around it. We folded our skirts at the waist once we got onto the school bus and became the “modern” women in ways our parents perhaps did not want us to become.

In college my parents told me that I had to wear a hijab. I was a rebel by the time. I had arguments with my parents about the place of women in Islam and unlike my extended family where critical questioning of Islam is blasphemy, my parents gave me the courage and confidence to question. Sometimes there was heartbreak on both sides.

Like the one time my mother discovered that I was actually taking off my hijab on my way to college. We had an argument and it was in making my case for freedom within Islam, that I became myself. I constructed my argument from examples of women in Islam such as Hazrat Khadija, Hazrat Ayesha and Bibi Halima and also from my radical reading of Nisa, the chapter in Quran that translates as “woman.” I argued that the text called for modesty and not for a piece of cloth. I chose to not wear the hijab and my parents’ difficult love found a way to support me. The fight one wages in the intimate sphere of the family is most often invisible, nevertheless for me it has been the hardest fight.

In 2015, I relocated to US seeking personal freedom. Having to lay down my own roots as an immigrant forced my own history and me to reconsider who I was. In that was buried the question of where I belonged. Long days of homesickness were punctuated by brief calm when I recreated my mother’s recipes and her rituals. She sent me Eid wishes and birthday cards reminding me to pray and be a good Muslim.

In 2017, she visited me and wanted to go to a local mosque for Eid prayers. I covered my head, just as she did and joined her. Distance gave me the lens to relook at my mother and understand that the space she gave me to disagree with her, question her belief systems and make my own case for freedom was also part of the love she had for me. Freedom in that sense is an ability to choose how one defines being Muslim. In that sense one woman’s right to wear the hijab is as valuable as another’s right to question it.

Ambarien Alqadar is an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter. She studied at Jamia Millia Islamia and completed graduate and post-graduate degrees in English Literature and Film. She holds an MFA in Film and Media Arts from Temple University and taught at AJK Mass Communication Research Center. Currently, she is associate professor at The Rochester Institute of Technology Film and Animation Program, New York.

Lead photo: Ambarien Alqadar

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