I've never been a very religious person, despite having grown up in India, the land of many - and very fascinating - religions. All around me people were practicing different faiths and turning to their individual Gods to give them something to believe in. Even though I was never able to identify with any one particular religion, I became fascinated with finding out more about the concept of religion and spirituality.
When observing the different religious groups around me, it didn't take me long to become especially intrigued by Islam. It also didn't take me long to realise that Muslims as a religious group are under constant pressure and attack from the rest of the world to defend their beliefs. To date, I still cannot understand why.
One of the debates that constantly seems to arise when non-Muslims discuss Islam is the topic of women covering up. When France banned the burqa in 2010, no amount of research or digging around could help me understand the logic behind it. Why should anyone care about what someone else chooses to wear?
Many in the West who are against the burqa and the hijab tend to base their arguments on a feminist cause - "Women shouldn't have to cover up for a man," some say. And they're right. But it's ignorant to assume that all Muslim women who wear the hijab have been forced into doing so by their husbands. More so, I find the argument ironic and slightly hypocritical. On one hand, us feminists fight for the right for women to own their bodies and wear whatever they choose to wear. Yet on the other hand, we attack those women who choose to cover their bodies?
This year I chose to take part in World Hijab Day, a day that encourages women who don't usually wear a hijab to give it a try for just one day. Having always been interested in the way many Westerners view hijabis, I wanted to experience wearing one for myself. I knew I wouldn't experience any extraordinary reactions from people - London in general is quite tolerant towards different religions. However, what I underestimated was the impact it would have on me personally.
I use the word "personally" because it really was a very personal experience, one that has been difficult to put into words. When I wore the hijab there was nothing unusual that happened to me and nothing very different that I experienced while going about my day - most of the time I forgot it was there. I realised that it was more of an experience for myself, rather than an experience to judge the reactions of other people towards me. I got to understand what so many women around the world feel when they put on a hijab and it became very easy for me to appreciate why it is they choose that path. When I put on the hijab and covered up, I wasn't spending my day worrying about what I looked like. It gives you a sense of confidence that you can only gain through learning to appreciate yourself for more than just your physical appearance. It makes you feel secure in a way that is very difficult to explain. I felt confident about who I was as a person because I knew that's what people were going to judge me on when I covered up - all they knew about me was based on my eyes, my facial expressions, and the words I said. There was something very empowering about that.
To those who continue to gaze skeptically at the women who have adopted the hijab, I have one thing to say: it takes true strength to cast aside your physical beauty and allow yourself to be judged on your personality. It isn't easy to be completely secure with who you are as a person, and many of us still struggle with it. Many of us also choose to hide behind a mask of insecurities. But the hijab forces you to put forward who and what you really are. You can't hide behind beautifully done hair or gorgeous jewellery and accessories. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with beautifully done hair or gorgeous accessories. But we must learn to appreciate and accept the choices of those who wish to wear the hijab.
There are a number of things that I took away from the experience. I now feel a connection to all the hijabi women who cover up every day. I feel as though I understand them a little better - not necessarily understand their reasons for choosing to wear the hijab, because I still think that is a very personal choice - but I do feel like I can relate to what they feel on a daily basis. I understand how frustrating it must be when other women say they are succumbing to the dominance of men by covering up - because that couldn't be further from the truth. I also understand how insulting it must be when people tell them to take it off or that they shouldn't wear it in the Western world. It's the same sentiment of insult that I feel when someone tells me my dress is too short. No woman appreciates being told how to dress.
The hijab, for me, now represents something a lot more than just a piece of cloth used to cover your head. It stands firmly as a symbol of equality. A symbol for women who choose not to let men judge them based on their appearances, but rather, forces them to see women for the people they are on the inside. It gives women a sense of value, it gives women a sense of strength, and it allows women to be in control of the way anyone else sees them. In my opinion, that is one of the strongest messages of equality you could send.