After ages I watched a movie that spoke to me. 'Arranged', a 2007 film, explores the evolving friendship of two fourth-grade teachers at a New York Public School- one a practicing Muslim and the other an orthodox Jewish woman. Rachel and Naseera, though from very different backgrounds, share a lot in common when it comes to their values and beliefs.
I related with one scene in particular which took me back to my various experiences as a 'Visibly Muslim' woman. During one of the lunch breaks Rachel and Naseera get called into the Principal's office. The principal- a white lady who took part in the women's movement of 60s- gives the all too familiar ' "Don't worry, I am here to save you" look to the two ladies. She begins,"You are both smart, bright young women. You are so beautiful, why do you have to hide under all those layers? This is the 21st century after all." As the two woman look on in bewilderment the benevolent principal continues to make offensive statements about their beliefs and then proceeds to offer them a wad of notes to 'shop for designer clothes'.
At 18 I started college with high spirits. I was in Bangalore- a city that I love in all its imperfection-living on my own for the first time. I was pursuing a degree in Psychology, Journalism and English- subjects that I loved and excelled in. Within days I made friends with amazing girls who I continue to cherish. I was actively involved in extra-curricular activities and was winning prizes for debates and 'personality contests'. But I soon realized that did not matter. One day I visited the staff room to have some of the well-intending lecturers there ask me why I am wearing clothes that are so 'drab;.Why, when I am so young, am I hiding my beauty under all those layers? Why don't I wear something stylish? You are so brilliant, you don't have to wear it you know.
As I stood there, an 18 year old girl high on life and excited about her future, I realized this is how it is going to be. No matter how vibrant my personality or how many my accomplishments, I was still going to be judged based on the cloth on my head. The hijab never held me back from enjoying life and its little pleasures. I traveled, I met interesting people, I wrote about these experiences. But for these women, my clothing muted every other feature that defined me.
At 19 a teacher asked me when my parents are going to get me married off. You know since in my community people do that to girls.
At 13 a random Muslim man shouted at me for not being modest according to his standards.
At 15 I held back tears as a religious teacher told me I might taste the flames of hell for not covering my face with a niqab.
Over the years I have developed a thick skin against these presumptions and judgments. When people ask me about my hijab I can now tell apart the genuinely interested from the ones who are out to save me or condemn me. I can see the words forming in their heads asking me to abandon what's on mine.
But let me tell you something, my hijab is not meant to act as a barrier between you and me. Neither is it an opportunity for you to tell me how I should live my life.
It is an invitation to look beyond what is physical and connect with me as a person. If you don't want to do that, and would prefer to just talk down to me, then know that-
I don't need your opinions.
I don't need your pity.
I don't need your saving.
I just need you to stand there and watch me rock my pashminas while I conquer the world with friends who value what's in my head rather than what's on it.