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.

Muzna, Nabeela and Sarah
Image caption,
Muzna, Nabeela and Sarah started wearing the hijab at different points in life
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

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