Pakistan: Educated, glamorous and wearing a Hijab

By Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Nov 18 (IPS) – They are young, educated, urban women who frequent cafes, shop
at ritzy fashion outlets, and go to yoga classes whenever they have time off work.But they also wear the ‘hijab’ or Muslim headdress, which even in this mainly Muslim South Asian country makes them a target for derision in far too many instances.

Indeed, while more conservative clothing like the ‘burqa’
– which leaves only a woman’s face (though at times even the
eyes and hands) uncovered – have been worn here for
centuries and accepted as South Asian garb, modernists
consider the ‘hijab’ as a dress more in keeping with Arab
culture. Both however are for the same purpose of purdah, or
the shielding of women from public observation by means of
concealing clothing and separate physical spaces.

Unfortunately, too, what some Muslim women wear as
reminders of their choice to be modest and humble have been
associated instead with extremism, even though they feel
that covering themselves and being modern are not
necessarily in conflict with each other.

As a result, Pakistani women who don the veil and also
the ‘abaya’ (a black outer garment that also covers a woman
from neck down), have been called derogatively as “ninjas”,
“fundos”, “Taliban”, or “mullani” (female version of

Many seem uncomfortable around them. One hijab-wearing
journalist says that when she applied for a job at a media
company, her interviewer looked at her from head to toe
while asking if she would be able to fit in the firm’s
“liberal” environment.

Ansa Khan, 40, says that a bank refused to let her open
an account there because she had her face covered. According
to Khan, the manager said the bank policy demanded that the
person opening the account must reveal his or her face, and
there were no female staff at the branch at the time.

Farahnaz Moazzam, who covers her head and wears the
abaya, observes, “People are more conscious and cautious
when I am around. They laugh less and whisper more.” And
unless she smiles first, she says, she is bound to be
surrounded by serious faces.

Says Moazzam, who gives Koranic lessons to women: “It’s
interesting how, over the years, people have asked me
questions like, ‘Do you crack jokes?’, ‘Do you make
mistakes?’, ‘What do you and your family talk about?’, ‘Do
you ever get angry?’, ‘Do you watch TV?’”

For sure, these women find such an attitude ironic in a
country where females are expected to dress modestly in the
first place. But some like Khan concede that their choice of
clothing may remind people of unpleasant events.

Among these is a 2007 incident in Islamabad in which
about 6,500 hijab- and abaya- wearing women of Jamia Hafsa,
a seminary attached to the Lal Masjid, had challenged the
government’s authority. A bloody army operation ensued,
resulting in the death of many students.

At the same time, the incessant images in media of women
clad in abayas and burqas in more conservative societies
like Saudi Arabia and Taliban-era Afghanistan seem to have
led many people here to associate such clothing with ultra-
conservative views.

The mildest expectation of women like her, says the
hijab-wearing journalist, is that they are “as perfect as
(angels)”. Moazzam agrees, saying, “They think too highly of
me because I am trying to follow one command of my religion
that is outward.”

Touba Naeem, who has been wearing a hijab for the last
eight years, says that people take one look at her attire
and assume that she is “not fun”. Single at 27, she adds,
“Hijab can be a potential detriment (to) good marriage

Interestingly, most of these women say their worst
critics are not strangers, but members of their family. One
woman says that her father and older brother “opposed
initially” her decision to don a hijab. Another says that
when she started wearing a veil, “my older brother would
pull it off my head in gatherings”.

One young socialite who began wearing a hijab after her
marriage says that her husband at first was hesitant in
accepting her veil. But all hell broke loose when she
started to wear the abaya, she says. “He refused to
introduce me to his friends or sit with me at social
gatherings, as if he was ashamed,” she recalls. Over the
years, she says, her husband has accepted both her hijab and

Yet for all their hardships that have come their way
because of what they want to wear, these women remain
adamant about their dress of choice. Aside from considering
it as an offering to Allah, the women say dressing the way
they do liberates them from worries about their looks and
allows them – and other people – to concentrate on more
important things.

Comments Moazzam: “I don’t feel like a product or an
object anymore. Now people notice my smile, my conversation,
and take me more seriously.”

The socialite, for her part, says that she did weigh the
pros and cons of wearing a hijab and concludes: “The
discomfort of not wearing it outweighed the joys of showing
off. I am happier doing it.”

Moazzam does say, however, that women who cover
themselves up should not treat life as “a prolonged bad hair

“You should look your best and maintain yourself,” she
says, “for your family and most importantly, for yourself.”

“Fashion, why not?” says Moazzam. “I am as normal as any
other woman. I have, however, come to a point where I am
covering up my fashion statement, jewellery, haircut, in
front of the crowd. But I still do it and enjoy it.”

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