Hijab in Kerala: the transformation from ignorance to knowledge

By Najiya O., TwoCircles.net,

A few decades ago, if a Muslim woman from Malabar clad in a burqa had gone to Ernakulam, people would have looked at her astonished. Because, burqa or any such dress was unfamiliar in southern Kerala. But now, anyone can see women in burqa or girls wearing head-scarves walking through the busy streets of Ernakulam. Hijab is no more new in the work places, educational institutions and public functions in Kerala.

Salma of Kaloor, Ernakulam, tells us how it was to wear hijab at a time when no one wore it here. “I began wearing the hijab about 15 years ago, when I joined an Arabic College and learned Islam, its principles and the Holy Qur’an. That was in the late 1980s. No one in my place used to cover heads or wear full-sleeved blouses. When I adopted hijab, people began to mock at me. Every time I went out wearing the burqa, people would swarm around and call me names like ‘bear’.”

A Kerala Muslim girl in traditional clothes in Malappuram.

Salma recalls the first time when she returned home from hostel wearing a hijab. Her brother who was at the bus stop could not recognize her. She had to hold him by hand to make him understand.

That was in the past. Now burqa or head-scarf or any sort of hijab is not new to Ernakulam. Earlier only women coming from other places used to wear hijab. And the people of Ernakulam looked down upon them as traditional and anti-modern. Now the situation has changed altogether. Saliha and Assia are witness to this change.

Saliha and Assia are sisters. They hail from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. They came to Ernakulam around 30 years ago when their husbands came in search of jobs. They used to wear hijab in their native place. They wore purdah and head-scarf. But when they wore it in Ernakulam, people laughed at their dressing.

Saliha says, “People would come out of their houses and stand at the gates to see us walking wearing purdah. Children would run after us, pulling the end of scarf or shawl we wore. People would shout, ‘Look, crows are going!’ Then the street children would call out, ‘Crows! Crows!’ Then we stopped wearing purdah, and so we went out only very rarely.”

And now? Let’s go back to Saliha. “We began using the purdah permanently only about 15 years ago. By then,a sea-change had occurred in people’s attitude. Now you can see many people in the streets wearing burqa or any other sort of hijab. Earlier, only people who came from other districts wore hijab. Kochiites were always fashion-loving people. Kochi has really changed now. And now, burqa is fashionable.”

A shop in Cochin selling hijabs.

Indeed hijab is fashionable now. There are different types of burqas and head-scarfs. Now, women want to wear burqas of the most modern fashion. Many textile companies like the Hoorulyn are famous for their brand of burqas and head-scarves. They have different varieties and fashions of hijab. In these circumstances, won’t it be wise to look back to know how it was about fifty years ago?

Back to Malabar of the 1950s, and we can see only some women of Thangal (supposed to be of the lineage of Prophet p.b.u.h.) and moulvi families wearing the burqa which covered the whole body. Very few wore naqaab. They went out only at nights, that is, if they had to meet some of their relatives. Pitch dark night, black burqa, and above this they used black umbrellas too. They wore burqa mainly out of tradition. Their mothers and grandmothers had worn it, so they too. In other families, women wore dhoti (‘kachithuni’), full-sleeved loose blouse (‘penkuppayam’) and a shawl (‘thattam’). That was the sort of hijab they used. There was a minority which wore fashionable dresses. The educated few wore saris and matching blouses. They adopted the dressing style of the majority community, which was comparatively more educated.

In the 1960s, the women who wore burqa began to take it off. That was the age of communism in Kerala. Religion began to be considered anti-modern. The first communist government came to power in the state. Communism and atheism were rated high then.

In the 1970s, people began to go abroad in search of jobs. Many Muslims of Malabar went to the Gulf countries and saw the life style there. They saw women wearing hijab and going out in broad day light. Women wearing burqa were respected and admired there. When the men came back to Kerala, they brought dress materials from there for their wives and sisters. At first they brought a sort of turban that Arab women used to cover their heads. Then they brought head-scarf, and then gradually burqa. The burqa of the Arab countries was called as abaya by the people of Malabar. The abaya was very loose and big. Then came the purdah, which was of medium size and more comfortable. Purdah became very popular among the Gulf families. Others too began to adopt it as it grew to be a symbol of status and fashion. When the men working in Arab countries took their families abroad, the women had to wear the burqa. They brought it back when they came to Kerala.

Hijab has become part of Kerala's landscape

Earlier there were not many organisations among the Muslims in Kerala. The ones that functioned had no women’s wings or youth wings. When organisations began to sprout and women’s and youth wings became active, women found the hijab system of burqa, purdah and head-scarves comfortable. When these organisations opened educational institutions, they made purdah and scarves the uniform for girls. Thus purdah and scarves became very popular among people. The organisations also imparted religious education among people. They taught people the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet. Translations of the Qur’an got published in Malayalam. This increased awareness of Islam also played its role in popularising hijab.

Mumtaz began to wear the purdah after she took to learning the Holy Qur’an. She recalls how her mother used to ask her to wear the dupatta/shawl covering the head when going out. But back then, when she was a young woman, she would not listen. However, she was interested in learning the Qur’an. Mumtaz says, “When I came to know that a teacher taught Qur’an in a nearby place, I joined the group of ladies there. I began to understand what is said in the Qur’an. Then I made a lot of changes in my life, including my dressing style. I began to wear the hijab. I have not taken it off since.”

Hafsa also began to dress the Islamic way after she attended religious classes. Those classes changed me, she said, I began to cover my head. Still, it was a revolution when she chose to wear full-sleeved blouses. Her husband who was a tailor said that he won’t stitch a full-sleeved blouse. So Hafsa had to go to another tailor. Hafsa and her co-sister wore full-sleeved blouses with sari for the wedding and that made a big talk then. Now Hafsa wears hijab always.

Hijab is now accepted by the people of Kerala. Earlier it was seen as a sign of oppression and people spoke against it due to superstitious beliefs. But now, the story of oppression has failed as more and more educated women are turning to the hijab. Still, there is opposition. But that comes out of fear. A fear of what would happen if women get to know and practice Islam well. The fear that traditional leaders have of the loss of their authority. However, women who wear the hijab feel safe, secure and confident. And that helps them to succeed.

[All photos: TwoCircles.net]


Burqa wearing is historical

In Northern part of Kerala (Kasaragod District) and Southern Karnataka(Canara District, burqa wearing is a very old tradition.

The Land of Malik Deenar, who brought Islam to India settled at Kasaragod during the time of Prophet itself.

So the Kasaragodan Muslims always accepted Islamic way of attire and still they are wearing burqa. Though the little deeny educated 'modern' ladies mistakenly considered it as part of slavery or lack of women's freedom, the Kasaragodan women are not ready to give up burqa.

Best of my knowledge they are the first one who practices hijab in India.

Assalamu Alaikum The

Assalamu Alaikum

The write-up here is about purdah or burqa. One should know that the Muslims in Kerala were better as are now in religious as well as modern education than the Muslims of any other state in India.

Wearing a dress alone is not purdah as women in Arab countries do. The Kerala Muslim women have always be good Islamists. The dress of purdah may have changed. It does not mean that they were not observing purdah some years ago. Kerala Muslims are a good thinking community. We have to learn a lot from them.

I would request the intellectuals in states like U.P., M.P., Bihar etc. to study the political, educational, social and other aspects of Kerala Muslims and preach their shining examples to the Muslims in these states.

V.M. Khaleelur Rahman

hijab in kerala

It indeed is unfortunate when somebody provides women wearing burquah or hijab as an example of progress.

I, and many others, would have been thrilled if you said 500 girls passed the MBBS exam or 20 of them got into IIT, or 5 of them published some scholarly paper in a respected magazine, or 2 of them published a well-recognized novel....

Wouldnt one want an outfit that "fits in" rather than keep separate? If Sari is not acceptable (although it is an all India outfit!), what about chudidar kurta, which si also worn all over India and has Islamic roots/ Why should a person, wahtever religion, adopt an arabic custom or dress? And if they do, then they are at their own peril; people will ridicule, and do not complain about that.

Muslim women used to wear native outfits - dhoti, thattom, blouse with long sleeves (sort of current day kurti), ears all pierced with multiple ear rings -- and many used to wear saris. It is only after the recent migration to Saudi arabia for jobs, in the last 25 years, the returning Muslim men from Saudi arabia started insisting women wear these foreign stuff. MAy be wahabism influenced (forget what the author says as about finally somebody realized "knowledge").
Older christian women still wear a similar version of the muslim blouse, but with short hands.

The Msulim leaders, instead of promoting these types of stupid "differentiation", should promote true excellence - literature, education, civic and administrative accomplishments etc. Books create an influence taht no burqua can create. It is really pathetic that in spite of having 30% or so of the population, there are only hand countable Muslim writers in MAlayalam. After the great Vaikom Muhamed BAshir, Yusuf Ali Kecheri (whose poem on Guruvayoorappan is one of my favorites!), NP muhamed and Kt Muhamed of yester years, no critically acclaimed Muslim writer has emerged in the last 20 years. punathil kunhabdulla is a creative guy. Why is it so? Has it something to do with madrasa system? Or ., I do not know, are there famous muslim writers from kerala wgho write in Arabic? (theer are only 800 titles published in all Arabic countries in the last 30 years, so statistically it is improbable to have more than a handful arabic books by kerala muslim writers).

Look around and see the amount of Christian writers Kerala has produced and still producing..

Inquisitiveness and imagination ahve to eb developed and encouraged from childhood. Muslim leaders are more concerned about hijabs and burquahs; not minds and books and education.

Listen, I am not questioning faith. I am not also questioning freedom. Anybody has the right to wear anything in India. However, when one chooses to wear something like Burqua, naturally people will wonder. Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Budhists, etc etc wearing Saree or kurta, or jeans do not make them less religious. I may be wrong; but I guess that not wearing burqua does not make a muslim woman less Muslim.

One can either join a pluralistic society or always try to keep away from that. In a pluralistic society you get recognized by your achievements and not by what you wear.


Dear Gopi,
You forgot to mention Kamla Surraiya. Despite your criticism, there have been several outstanding Keralite Muslims in the last 20 years like AK Rahman, Padam Shri Yusuf Ali, Mammooty, Anwar Ali to name a few.

In fact, Kerala Muslims are doing much better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. Since you are comparing with the other communities, there is bound to be some discrepancy, as historically after Partition muslims lagged behind.

Burqa in Kerala

It is distressing to see that areas in India like inter alia Kerala or Kashmir, where the regional culture and identity had historically resisted the wearing of the Burqa, which had always been an alien foreign concept, some Muslims have taken to the wearing of the Burqa which can only be described as deterioration. This new practice is in contradiction to the recent statement of a French Muslim Minister ,Fadela Amara, who is of Algerian descent, who said the veil and headscarf combination covering everything but the eyes represented "the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation".


Show the Breasts was the style

In Kerala the old practice was expose breasts. No women have the right to cover thier breasts. If they want to cover it, they have to pay a tax. That was in old Kerala. But nowadays Keralites understood that Purdha is good for women.

Kerala is not Paris, where the sex by men and animals have narrow gap!

Why r you distressed

Why are you worried and distressed upon the dress of a woman. Did you have any thought about a Jean clad or Saree clad woman. What the Algerian descent minister is saying is not ideal of many. We know how potent these tools of others are when they ask for due favours. We know how Shahban is shouted down because your task for her siding with Tazlimma is over.How Javed Akhtar became a non secular and how Shah Rukh Khan was being taught USA law.If you think you are liberal, you are not. Once you cant bear a sight of burqa wearing lady how the thought eminates from your hate of Muslims and Islam. Did you ever have shock in your mind when you sigheted a Nun. To people like you, everything is either Chrstian or Hindus because you do not want to accept the presence of Islam. Oh! let me ask you. Do you despise the Muslims just because you are denied to see for the beauty of their women folk. Fool, that is the purpose of the purdah, hijaab or burqa. As far as your ladies are concerened they too want to be spared from the 'hungry' gaze. But, you being liberal, want their beauty to be savioured by all. Are you in for allowing them to wear their own choice, no! You are not able to think humanly.

Hijab as a dress code has nothing to do with Islam or Quran


While many Muslims call "Hijab", an Islamic dress code, they completely ignore the fact that, Hijab as a dress code has nothing to do with Islam and nothing to do with QURAN.

In reality "Hijab" is an old pre-Jewish tradition that infiltrated into the hadith books like many innovations that contaminated Islam through alleged Hadith and Sunna.

The traditional Arabs, of all religions, Jews, Christians and Muslims used to wear "Hijab," not because of Islam, but because of tradition. In certain areas of the world, men are the ones who wear the hijab while in others the women do.

read on



The site you are quoting from is run by adherents of Rashid Khalafa, the false claimant to prophethood, and an alleged paedophile.

burqua in this country and other countries

you can watch Pakistan women on TV everyday now because of the situation there, though Pakistan is a muslim country women there do not wear burqua. similar is the situation in Bangladesh.

however in this country muslim women has started using burqua in strict sense.

is it that Muslim women can do without burqua where all the other men in and around are Muslims and hence muslim women wear burqua in this country since all men are not muslims or is that the muslim women wear burqua out of fear of religious fundamentalists or fearing punishment or to establish that there are sufficient number of muslim women in the country

Hijab In ISlam

Dear Brother Vasanth Madhav,

1.For your Kind Information Islam has neither formed or started either by Pakistan Or Bangladesh it is a only religion of whole of the Universe for whole of Mankind not just Limited to Muslims and it is of the Creator only one GOD,Bhagwan,EEshwar, Prabhu or Allah whatever u call finally there is only one God controlling whole of Universe. So it doesnot mean at all that if those womens from that country's are not wearing Hijab Indian Should not do, being a Muslim one should not follow the customs and traditions of neighbouring country but one should follow the rights and duties as prescribed by allah and Prophet(P.B.U.H). for the benefit of the community why you have subjected only to Pakistan and Bangladesh why Not Saudi And other Gulf regions.

2.Itis not that Muslim women can do without Burqa if all are Muslims if such was the case then no women in Totally Isamic country would have weared Burqa like that in Saudi.

wearing Burqa is inner faith in God women Wear Burqa for having fear of Allah in her but not for fear of religious fundamentalist or in fear of punishment and they just want to protect themselves from evil eyes but not to show off their strength in our Country bcoz we now what is our strength here.

PUrdaha and Freedom

Why it should be a matter of debate .
what is wrong if one wear pudha or sari etc
hindu and christian women have their own customes and costumes. Nobody attack such customs.Let them follow it.
Muslims have Purdha system or dress code which covers the entire body.
if somebody prefers not to wear purdha please respect their freedom. If sb prefers to follow purdha let them have it as long as it does not disturb others.
if sb thinks that Purdha is not native to kerala then explain what is native to kerala. Go to the history of kerala how the women cover their body. only 30 % covered. remaining open to the naked eyes of others. People enjoyed a lot.
so dont worry about custom or costumes.
No one attacks the nuns and their costumes.why
No one attacks hindu women when they are either half naked or wearing transparent wet clothes during some festivals or in temples.

So please forget everything ..lets allow the freedom of everyone..