Meet the Badass in a Burkini

Social Commentary

Meet the Badass in a Burkini

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I’ve spent the last three days reading comments to the news of the burkini fiasco. I haven’t even completed reading one whole article, but the extreme responses of paranoia are enough to lead me to a conclusion, one I always suspected – the world believes that the hijabi woman is the equivalent of Jim Carrey in a green mask, who will at the slightest provocation, whip out machine guns, rockets, and bazookas, if you piss her off.

As a hijabi myself, I assure you I’m not hiding a bazooka. What I am hiding is a bomb. Or that’s what the guys I worked with believed.

This is the story. (Note: All characters in this work are real, including their names, and are alive. Where names haven’t been mentioned, the author just wants you to have fun speculating. Inspired from a disclaimer in Dave Eggers’ memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I’d like to add: All events described herein actually happened, though on occasion the author has taken certain, very small, liberties with dramatisation, because that is her right as an Indian).

Summer of 2003. A 16-year-old junior-college student discovered the impression she had on people was based on a set of formulae. One was this.

A hijabi = obviously a Muslim = Pakistani cricket team supporter

India and Pakistan were to play a cricket match that day. The boys in the group were talking about it, when one of them turned to her and said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Arre, tu toh Pakistan per bet karegi na.” He was answered with a reflex slap, and a thunderous, “How dare you!”

The sardar, being the good boy he was, went silent. But a storm waged inside the girl. Don’t worry, she grew out of her filmi, angry-young-woman persona eventually (at this point her family and friends are nodding a big no; ignore them). But honest-to-God, she grew up and decided that really, she didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. It was, “To hell with the hackneyed ideas people harbour.”

But the hackneyed ideas hadn’t bid farewell to her. They followed her right to a newsroom in India. Through the Mumbai summer, teasing winter, and monsoon of 2008, journalists wrote, edited, and dissected many reports on Islamist extremism and terrorism. In other news – soft news as we call it – large totes were in fashion. She, of course, had one; big enough to catch a wisecracking colleague’s eye. “This one’s good for you to carry a ‘bomb’ around.”

Cue laughter.

Strip women of the choice, and the world is left with only one way to think of beauty, and a multi-billion dollar hole in the fashion industry.

Here’s the basic drift on the hijab – if we’re not terrorists, hijab-wearing women are at least backward, not aspirational, conservative, and meek.  And here’s the kicker – I don’t know any city-bred hijabi, who hasn’t been told by the very same people – once they got to know her – that she so doesn’t fit the stereotype.

Well, good morning!


Take a pause. Let’s have a another look at the hijab. For a minute, let’s not think of it as relgious. For a minute, let’s think of it as fashion with minimal skin exposure. Instead of it being shooed off a beach, let’s think of it sashaying down a ramp.

Last year, saw the “hijabi subculture of style” catching attention of brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Mango, DKNY, and Dolce & Gabbana. While “covered” collections debuted in their Arab-world stores, H&M’s ad featured a Muslim model dressed in a hijab. Fashion magazines like Elle and Vogue, too, gave generous newsprint space to modest clothing and its designers. The Muslim woman has been hailed as fashion scene’s new darling, the hijabi fashionista, or hijabista as they call her these days.

Don’t think of bleak over gowns you see Indian hijabi women wearing. Think of sporty-chic dresses, long coats with pants, Turkish skirt-style abayas, calf-length coats with baggy pants, printed trench coats, maxi dresses with shrugs, and even a jumpsuit abaya with floral pink piping, inspired from an Elie Saab gown.

Look up online for Salva Rasool. A calligraphy artist, she’s often been featured alongside her colourful work, in equally colourful, chic scarves, long coats, and tunic dresses. My favourite is her last year’s media appearance with filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt during the inauguration of her art exhibition in Mumbai. In a rani pink embroidered stole and a Persian blue tunic dress with asymmetrical hemline, she presents to us the “other kind of a hijab wearer.”

It’s important that you look at this “other kind of hijabi wearer” and tell yourself that loose clothing and skin coverage is her elegant, sartorial choice – just like the salwar kameeez of the Punjabi, the collared dress of the Amish woman, the anti-fit jeans of the normcore believer, and the oversized knits of the chic Scandinavian brand Acne. Strip women of the choice, and the world is left with only one way to think of beauty, and a multi-billion dollar hole in the fashion industry.

The hijab and its beachy cousin, the burkini, are worn by fairly cool and seriously well- styled women. The more you know think of them as that, the less are the chances you will think they’re hiding a bazooka. As New Yorker hijabi social activist Rana Abdelhamid says, “There are so many badass hijab-wearing Muslim women. If people aren’t getting to know us, they’re missing out! Get to know us.”