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Nabeela Shaikh was 30 when she started wearing the hijab. She was the last of three sisters to take to it.

The eldest, Muzna, first wore it when she was eight, inspired by a cousin. She would then wear it depending on the company around her – until, she says, she realised she couldn’t “please everyone”.

The youngest, Sarah, reached for it at the “lowest point” in her life when her dream of becoming a surgeon was dashed by low exam scores. “It started with things like praying on time,” she says. “The hijab came later and it came naturally.”

Born to two doctors, the sisters grew up in India’s coastal metropolis, Mumbai. Their mother still doesn’t cover her head. But when they do, they say, people assume it’s out of compulsion.

The hijab is widely worn in India, where public displays of faith are common – but last month, school girls in Karnataka state protested over being barred from wearing it in class and spotlighted the headscarf like never before.

The question – whether Muslim girls have the right to wear the hijab to class – is now in court. The row has sparked violence, divided campuses and stopped a number of Muslim girls in Karnataka from attending classes.

The BBC spoke to Muslim women across India who say they feel angry about the “intrusive nature” of the debate.

“We are constantly reminded that to be accepted, we must give up our religion,” said one woman from Delhi. What is drowned out by the public outcry, they say, is the intensely personal nature of their choice.

Those who choose to wear the hijab say it is not solely a religious decision, but one born out of reflection. And those who choose not to wear it say their hair is not a barometer for their faith.

‘I am not oppressed’

“People don’t understand how one can feel empowered by wearing a headscarf,” Nabeela says, laughing. “It confuses them so they judge us.”

Oppressed is a word commonly hurled at women wearing the hijab – but many point out that refusing to take into account why they do so is not liberating either, and neither is keeping girls out of school because they refuse to remove it.

“Young Muslim women are out on the streets protesting for their rights. And you’re still telling me that [these] women can’t think for themselves?” said 27-year-old Naq from the southern city of Bangalore, who goes by her first name only.

Muslim Womens from Thane Mumbra on sunday staged an agitation against the Karnataka government and organized a rally in support of the hijab in protest of the ban on hijab by Muslim students in colleges in the state of Karnataka ,in Thane, on February 13, 2022 iIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY

“My veil unveiled a lot of people’s mindsets,” she says. “People would hiss at me: Are you oppressed? Are you feeling hot? What shampoo do you use? Some people asked me if I even had hair – they thought I had cancer.”

For her, the hijab was also a sartorial experiment – she sees glamour in every drape and drama in the colours.

“People think my hijab is at odds with my trendy clothes and makeup. But it’s not,” she says. “If I step into a room, I want people to look at me and think, that’s a Muslim women achieving her goals, travelling the world, and is flourishing.”

Other Muslim women – like Wafa Khatheeja Rahman, a lawyer in the southern city of Mangalore – say not wearing the hijab does not make them any less Muslim.

“I didn’t wear it because it does not align with who I am – and no one can tell me to wear it,” she says. “But just like that, nobody can tell me I shouldn’t wear one either.”

Wafa’s mother never wore the hijab either – but she says she grew up with faith all around her, listening to stories of not just the Prophet but also women in Islam.

“The Prophet’s first wife was a businesswoman, while the second rode into battle on a camel. So, are we really as oppressed as the world wants us to believe?” she asks.

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