I had the experience of a lifetime this summer. As Delhi alternated between sweltering and stewing, I took off for my first Umrah (a pilgrimage to Mecca) with close family.
I am a practising Muslim and consider myself devout, but no number of photographs or videos of this sacred journey can prepare you for the real experience.
It was a revelation for me as I joined thousands of other devouts from across the globe circling the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred site. It is an experience in integration like no other when you walk in step with truly diverse humanity – one with millions.
I had worn an abaya to the Kaaba for the Fajr (morning prayers), but all around me were women lost in private communion with Allah, a number of them wore normal clothes, like kurtas. The Umrah has a dress code known as Ihram: Men have to wear two white sheets covering the upper and lower body, but women can wear anything modest, with their hands and faces uncovered.
In that moment of submergence, I had an epiphany as I glimpsed the faces of my fellow pilgrims, some awash in tears, others lost in silent prayers. I wondered why when we were indeed one and equal in the eyes of Allah and Holy Quran were rules so different for men and women when it came to clothes.
As an adolescent, I have toyed with the idea of wearing an abaya, but never really took to it seriously. My family left it to my judgment when it came to my clothes. And I have always felt an abaya or hijaab is often used as an instrument for the oppression of women. It is oftentimes forced on women, whereas it must be a matter of their choice.
Religion has played a very crucial role in shaping me as a person. I not only read the Quran frequently, but also take out time to pray. I also respect all other religions equally if not more. There is no sense of contradiction in this for me. But when Islam has given Muslim women the right to choose a spouse, why not give the right to dress how they like?
At a time when Muslim women's rights collectives have long been campaigning against practices like instant triple talaq and polygamy in India, I choose to write about women's right to choose what they wear. Mainly because I have always felt strongly about it.
I am a proud Muslim. Not just because I am born into the faith, but because of what I feel, as a woman, is its most liberating and progressive feature. My religion considers me at par with any man. The current discourse – both liberal and conservative – may give a different impression, but for me, the message in the Holy Quran is loud and clear.
This verse from the Holy Quran spells it out: "O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness, that you may take away part of the dowry you have given them - except when they have become guilty of open lewdness. On the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them, it may be that you dislike something and Allah will bring about through it a great deal of good." [Quran 4:19]
And this is not the only verse from the Holy Quran that shines with egalitarian spirit -- Islam is all for gender equality. Why then these stringent requirements for women followers of the faith to cover up their bodies with an abaya, hijab or burkha?
I am a Muslim by birth and I am proud of it. Please do not get me wrong. The fact is, most Muslim women I know are not only very accepting of the abaya and hijab, they also believe that this is the only way to dress modestly. Most of my grandmother's generation would know no other way. They were conditioned to believe this, unquestionably, from a young age.
My argument is simple, if women are expected to adhere to certain rules, shouldn't men do the same?