When Ayesha Nawab moved back to India after her pilot training in Australia, she was told she would have to take off her hijab if she wanted to fly, or if she wanted a job with an airline at all.
“Even ground staff in India are not allowed to wear hijabs along with their uniforms,” she said. Why should it be a problem to wear a matching hijab, a veil covering the head with a fully covered uniform, she asked.
Nawab has not flown since 2012, and misses it terribly. Currently an English teacher in Chennai, she hopes the rules will change, or that somehow, she will at least be able to fly part-time.
Nawab was a late wearer of the hijab, donning it only at the age of 22. Five years since, her Instagram account, @Miss_Nawabi, has become a meeting ground for like-minded and young, trendy hijab-wearing women.
Her posts include the usual fashion-blogger fare – a mix of make-up promotions and carefully put together #OOTDs (outfits of the day) – with hashtags like #muslimahchic, #modestmovement, and #hijablove, among others.
The Instagram handle’s appeal lies with its owner’s sense of personal style, but also the confidence with which a young woman promotes her Muslim identity – Nawab is the antidote to the “all hijab wearing women are oppressed” trope.
“I feel we are more liberal than ever and have a very strong identity,” she said. “Women around the world and in our country are living their lives stronger than ever and the hijab doesn’t stop them from doing that. For me it is a way of life.”
Young women like Nawab, who are making their presence felt on Indian social media, but also in other parts of the world, are part of a movement that it no less than a social revolution. In 2015, the Supreme Court of India upheld a ban on hijabs and long sleeves at the All India Pre-Medical entrance test. In August 2016, armed French police made a woman remove some of her clothing as part of a controversial ban on the burkini – a type of swimsuit which covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet. Recently, with Trump’s victory, hijab-wearers have been at the receiving end of violence. With the president-elect considering reinstating a database of immigrants from Muslim majority countries, attacks against minorities in the United States have been on the rise.
After Trump won the election on November 8, young Muslim-Americans have confessed to receiving instructions from their mothers to take off their hijabs – because they feared for their safety.
Farheen Naqi, 24, a Mumbai-based hijabi-fashion blogger, was born in Lucknow and grew up on the island of Seychelles. She Instagrams her hijabs, casual vans and distressed denims while riding a bicycle around the city, from her handle @FilterFashion, which has 25,200 followers.
Naqi has received hate from some Muslims who don’t agree with her non-traditional idea of dressing up. She approaches the idea of traditional modesty with playfulness – layering a strappy slip dress over long-sleeved tops or wearing figure-hugging denims with lacy shrugs and stilettos.
She recently watched 24-year-old Zaineb ‘Zee’ Abdulla’s viral video on Facebook. In the video, Abdulla is shown disarming a man trying to pull off her hijab. The man is Abdulla’s martial arts trainer, Misho Ceko, and the two created the video with the same sequence enacted at differing speeds, in the hope that young women watching would be able to memorise the set of movements: Ceko grabs the end of Abdulla’s scarf, she turns around, entwines her arm through his, and twists it – bringing him to his knees.
“It is sad that you even need such a specific defence class in the first place,” Naqi said. “It really hits home how big the problem has gotten for hijabis living abroad.”
“You hear the stereotype of Muslim women being oppressed all the time, but the real oppression would be to take hate and discrimination and do nothing,” said Naqi.
She feels it is a lot easier to be a part of the crowd than to stand out of it. “I was tired of the ‘Oh I didn’t know you were Muslim’ comments and finally understood why the hijab was there in the first place – to show my identity as a Muslim,” she said. “I would never want to hide my identity and give in to the discrimination.”
Nayaab Shawl and Shanaz Rukshana, both 23 years old, believe that India is the best place for all cultures to have their freedom.
They started the Instagram handle @Hayaah.Hijabs in October because they were disappointed at the lack of fashion-forward hijabs in India. From jersey hijabs to petal-patterned ones, priced at an average of Rs 499, they use WhatsApp to take orders from their customers.
“Every time we had to pair our hijabs for parties or weddings, we found that we had no variety,” said Shawl. “So we wanted to bring in what we would have liked for us personally, to make hijabs beautiful and fun to wear.”
Rukshana refers to the hijab as a crown on her head. “It gives me pride and honour to represent my religion and where I come from,” she said, adding, “I have not once thought that it weighs me down or comes in way of something I do. If truth be told, I’m more confident than I can ever be with a hijab on my head.”
Aisha Fathima was not born a Muslim. The 24-year-old former fashion student, living in Chennai, chose to embrace the religion three years back. She considers the piece of cloth wrapped around her head as of the past two months, a symbol of her belief and a proud declaration of her religious identity.
“I have been facing negativity but that didn’t stop me,” she said of her decision to wear a hijab. Fathima started a YouTube channel called TheStyleDrift, showcasing tips and tricks for budget-fashion. Her videos include updates on her life, tips on how to microwave a mug cake and how to style a hijab without using a pin.
“If a woman, chooses to wear the hijab, it is her right and her freedom to do so,” she said. “Nobody can question her choices, against her own will.”
Fathima refers to herself as a “revertee” rather than a convert, which she said is considered to be greater than a born Muslim: “Being a revertee it is my responsibility to be able to share the Islamic beliefs the right way and to be a role model for many Muslims around the globe.”