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Indian Muslim women enjoy freedom to choose and it should be theirs alone

On 4 February, the musical legend AR Rahman performed on stage at Dharavi to commemorate ten years of Slumdog Millionaire, the Danny Boyle movie for which he had won two Oscars. The Mozart of Madras was soon embroiled in a hate campaign because of his daughter expressing her right to choose.During the performance, Khatija had come up on stage to speak a few words of admiration for him. As soon as the video appeared on social media, people began to troll them.

Social media users were quick to assume that Rahman had forced his daughter to dress conservatively. He tried to shut down the trolls by sharing a photograph of his wife and two daughters posing along with Nita Ambani accompanied by the hashtag #freedomtochoose. In the photograph, Khatija can be seen wearing a niqaab, while her sister and mother do no wear one.Khatija explained on her Instagram page that no one has forced her to cover her face, “The veil has been my choice with complete acceptance and honour. I’m a sane mature adult who knows to make my choices in life.” She further added that people should not judge without completely understanding the situation.

When I saw the photograph, my reaction was that in a sense, it encapsulates the beauty of our country. The strength of our nation lies in acceptance and plurality of our culture. Every woman of India is a microcosm of its diversity and they all have a meticulous dressing style; it could be all-black, preppy, gender neutral, girly or conservative. What matters is that she should feel empowered and liberated in what she wears — even if it is a hijab — without having to explain her choice.Quran, Islam, and Hijab

The term hijab is a catchall for any type of Muslim veil. Khatija wore a niqab, which is a type of veil that covers the face while leaving a slit for the eyes. In Islam, like most other religions, modesty is an important virtue of faith. When the Quran addresses the issue of hijab, it first puts the responsibility of hijab on the believing men asking them not to stare at women and not to be promiscuous, “Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.” The verse tears down rape culture for it orders men to first reform themselves and demolishes the oft-heard grumble that a woman was “too provocative”. A person, who accepts Islam, accepts the hijab, “be chaste yourselves, and women will be chaste as well.” Only when the Quran has commanded men to be modest, does it address the women. Even then, it makes clear that in Islam men are not permitted to force hijab on women. For a practicing Muslim, this is an important issue and was emphasised by Khatija, “There were certain comments which said that this attire is being forced by my dad and that he has double standards. I would like to say that the attire I wear or the choices I make in my life does not have anything to do with my parents.”India and Right to Freedom of Religion

In India, the rights of members of any religion to practice, profess, and propagate is absolute except when it is contrary to public order, health and mortality. The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 of the Indian constitution. Khatija’s choice is her right to freedom that is both a constitutional and human right.

To deprive her of that right is impermissible. For a person, faith is intrinsic to their meaningful existence and a part of their individuality. The realisation of this right can help any woman put a stop to any sort of patriarchal supremacy or patriarchal choice she may be subject to. This individual faith and expression of choice are fundamental for the fructification of the right to freedom.

Hijab equals oppression

The social media reaction reinforces an omnipresent stereotype – she must be oppressed and would have been forced to do so by a man. The problem with this simplistic understanding is that it assumes that a woman can be free only in what we call in India, a western outfit. The point is – it is true that many women are “forced” to dress “modestly” but much of that oppression comes from lack of access to education, employment opportunities, and the right to exercise political power. In other words, modesty does not oppress women – even if women in such “free” communities started wearing ‘modern clothes’ they would still be oppressed, because let us not forget that self-proclaimed guardians of morality were equally outraged about Sania Mirza’s skirt or Priyanka Chopra’s dress.

When you tell a woman she is oppressed because of her choice, you are assigning a belief system and robbing her of her agency. When you assume modesty is not a choice, you demote a woman from being a thinking individual and strengthen stereotypes that have held women back.

Hijab is not feminism

Feminism is a belief that women and men should have the same political, economic, personal, and social rights. It also means that a woman can show her body like a man without judgment or criticism. Furthermore, it means that a woman alone should have a right to wear hijab or shorts.

Clothes are not a reflection of her intellect, promiscuity, political inclination, or sexual preferences. The ‘choice’ to wear a saree is just as empowering as the choice to wear jeans. What matters is her right to assert control and ownership of her body and to demand that she be judged by her actions and not by her appearance.

Sexuality and Modesty

A woman who dresses in a hijab is as much a sexual person as a woman who flaunts a bikini. A conservative dress does not imply that she does not believe in love or self-care. All it means that she chooses to separate her public and private expressions of sexuality.

Lessons from the fiasco

The only take away from this incident should be that the way a woman dresses shouldn’t be imposed on her. A woman’s dress should not limit her from pursuing or achieving her dreams. Historically, modesty has different connotations but that should not obscure its appeal and relevance for the modern woman. The photograph shared by AR Rahman is a reflection of this choice.An individual’s choice should be respected because it is theirs alone. Social approval for personal choices is not the basis for recognition. An adult can live life as she pleases. Even the constitution protects personal liberty from critique and judgment. To tell Khatija how she should dress is an insult to the women of India, for it takes away their right to think for themselves. Expression of choice in accordance with law is the acceptance of individual identity. By trolling, insulting and name calling the right and trying to mold it in accordance with society would only destroy the individuality of a person. How Khatija lives, her life is entirely a matter of her choice.

Sanobar Fatma is an academician based in New Delhi. She writes extensively about polity, law and films while remaining involved in her parent discipline — the medieval Indian history. She tweets at @SanobarFatma

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