The last encounter in this search for hijabis was the stuff of journalistic cliché. The meeting with naqaab-clad Tabassum in a seedy Old Delhi teashop where we are the only women could be the opening chapter of a book called Lipstick Hijabi or some such easy juxtaposition. Tabassum is shopping for Eid gifts in the glittery all-night markets and will happily play along in such a narrative. She is 26, works in an NGO and travels often. The daughter of a clerk and a tailor, Tabassum is a wickedly funny raconteur, who claims to have begun wearing the black naqaab (that covers her face, hair and torso) because of acne. She calls herself a behrupiya, one who can take on any avatar, who can walk demurely or laugh raucously on the streets, who can keep her eyes down or meet boys and spend hours in the evil cybercafé chatting with strangers. But she is also aware her hijab is a constant prompt for seekers of explanations.

But Tabassum has no easy explanations. She and a new generation of Muslim women are a challenge to old notions of the hijab as merely a coercive tool of male imprisonment. For them, it is an intensely personal and voluntary act. Yet, instead of asking for their opinions, hijab wars are now raging across the world on their behalf — from France, where zealous liberals have banned it, to Mangalore, where zealous bigots want to ban it.

In India, a country constantly bemoaning the loss of feminine modesty, one would assume the hijab would be admired. Instead, it is almost universally reviled. It is a slap to those who have grown up equating individual freedom with western modernity and secularism with atheism. It is violence upon the gaze accustomed to the Hindu face.

But for many Muslim women, the wearing or shedding of the hijab is a complex set of moves in a chess game of emancipation. Tabassum, for instance, feels no need to wear the hijab outside Delhi. In Delhi, regardless of the entreaties of her mother – you are so beautiful, why would you hide it — she refuses to take it off. Older male relatives had pushed her for years to adopt it, but she started wearing it only after they had given up. She also has male relatives who are embarrassed to be seen with hijabi wives outside of their Muslim neighbourhood – loath to be seen as oppressors by strangers. Tabassum laughs at both sets of men. She is not the only one.

Mehreen Ahmed, 24, a dental student in Hyderabad and the daughter of a doctor-engineer couple, has only recently convinced her brother that the ever-vigilant public will not attack her for wearing a hijab. It is a measure of the distances they have travelled that, for months, Tabassum played the old hijab game in reverse, putting it on only when out of sight of her disapproving mother.

But while many Muslim women may have mastered the art of skilful subversion, the hijab is certainly not voluntary for everyone. A Hyderabad- based professor (who asked not to be named) describes changes in the Urdu-medium women’s college he teaches in. From the 1980s, he has seen the hijabi change from a rarity—usually a poor girl, hiding her sparse wardrobe—to a rigid norm. As much a norm as the brother waiting at the gate at day’s end. Like Tabassum, these students may use their hijab with finesse, gaily swapping expensive coloured hijabs between them and slipping out to see movies or meet boys. But that this is not an act of choice became evident during a public-speaking contest in college. When asked what they’d do if they were men, all the participants replied, “We’d stop wearing hijabs.”

Such stories are ammunition for both rightwing Hindu groups organising provocative bans against the hijab as well as the progressive wishing to liberate our Muslim sisters through calls to ‘reform from within’ or anti-poverty measures.

But what is one to make of the new hijabis? Tabassum is only one voice in a wide and unnoticed thought revolution taking place, where many Muslim women are adopting the hijab as a voluntary embrace, as something they have ‘grown into’. These new hijabis are often urban, well-heeled, highly educated and the first woman in generations to wear the hijab. If one interprets emancipation and modernity as the freedom to make conscious, individual choices — not coerced by society — these women pose a tricky challenge. In our zeal to create free societies, what space are we leaving for the culturally rooted, even culturally conservative?

Over years of introspection and reading, these women have arrived at an understanding of the hijab as an attitude of modesty they are comfortable adopting. Their choices may seem inhibiting, but it is voluntary. They understand personal freedom not merely as the right to wear less, but to wear what they please — in this case, the right to wear more. Can one deny them this right?

Yet, not everything they say is easy to hear. The Quran tells you to be modest, not to wear purdah, says a hijabi. It tells you to cover your hair, ears and lower your gaze, says another. A third says the hijab prevents rapes; when she uses Old Testament words like ‘carnal attention’, you sweat a little. The saviour of Muslim womanhood inevitably sees new windmills to tilt at.

But why should this garment offend, ask these hijabis. For many of the Indian women who began wearing it post 9/11 – in the wake of the sweeping hostility against Muslims that enveloped even India — the prying gaze is not behind the twitching curtains of neighbours. It is a panopticon. And it is the hostility that turned many women — doctors, artists, writers — to the Quran for answers. Did Islam really tell a 17-year-old to bomb a building? Instead these women came away with an understanding of Islam as a compassionate, well-ordered way of life and with a decision to wear the hijab.

Almost universally, they speak of this decision as hugely empowering. Liberating. The world expanded. Public transportation suddenly became free of groping hands. “I didn’t feel like people were checking me out all the time. Boys saw me as someone who knew her mind,” says Sabbah Haji, 27, who adopted the hijab while in college in Bengaluru. She now lives in Jammu, runs her family’s educational trust and finds great peace in the choices she’s made.These decisions pose a feisty challenge to another byproduct of modernity: consumerism. The new hijabi sees consumerism and its coercive, insidious culture of the body as an imprisonment. The hijab represents a freedom from that. Farah Saleem, 24, a psychology student and daughter of NRI parents, says, “Now people don’t judge me on whether I’m wearing the jewellery I wore yesterday.” In a world devoted to the careful curating of consumption and appearances, such decisions ask us to make our fixed notions of “freedom” wider and more accommodative.

It takes Tabassum to bring back a frisson of what Neetu Singh brought to Amar Akbar Anthony when she lifted her veil — one of the last times we saw the hijab discussed in popular culture with joy or irreverence. “I have nice eyes,” Tabassum says, “Men must be intrigued when they imagine my face.”

Muslim women are constantly asked to prove they are not slaves, so no statistics will end the worry that the new hijabis too have been brainwashed. Nudged about this, Tabassum lapses into passion. “Sometimes even close friends ask about ‘pressure’. I tell them: Think of how joyfully you ask your mother to put a teeka on your forehead. You’ve to believe that I have a mind.”

It’s easy to tell the story of the new hijab as if it is the story of the old hijab — a piece of cloth and a woman within to be freed or protected as is your inclination. But the new hijab is as politically loaded as khadi must have once been. Film critic Roger Ebert once said that some melodramatic films depend on every character being an idiot, not telling each other the necessary truth. In our old country with new problems, we may never understand each other. We may feel stuck in an idiot plot but it does not have to lead to paranoia.

First published here.