I was scared. Frightened to my bones. What would people think of me? How will they judge me. Will I be labeled? All these thoughts ran through my mind when I first contemplated wearing a headscarf. It wasn’t until I heard the author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization Effect and What We Can Do About It, Meenakshi Gigi Durham say in the documentary Miss Representation with regard to the sexualization of women and girls in the media, “Under this rhetoric of empowering women it’s completely disempowering women,” that I began to feel that wearing a hijab was something that could be empowering.
In our hyper-sexualized world women who dress in a sexy manner are celebrated. They are considered beautiful, strong, and feminine and sadly many girls and women admire them not for their character but for the amount of skin they are willing to show. These are the role models of today. And a generation of girls and women are growing up believing that to be a strong, independent woman means to be sexy to the outside world.
However, as Meenakshi Gigi Durham has stated, this rhetoric is disempowering women. In her book she says, “No one stops to question why boys are never the objects of the gaze; why, if being on display is so empowering, males don’t embrace this form of sexual expression, too.”
I have always, even as a child , instinctively felt that the gaze women are subjected to is disrespectful and damaging to women. As the child of a very young and exceptionally beautiful mother, I felt a deep discomfort of the gaze which she was subjected to. My mother was not a Muslim. And whilst she dressed in a sexy manner she too understood that her outer appearance and the world’s reaction to her was crushing her inner self. Once when I asked her if she liked being beautiful she responded by saying , “No. I am invisible. They see a beautiful face and body, but they don’t see me. And most just want to posses me. But no one wants to know me or love me for me.” I still remember the sadness in her eyes and what she said has never left me.
My mother had been stripped of her power. It still pains me even now years after her death. But she never questioned that being sexy for everyone wasn’t the way a woman had to be. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. Because that is what she was taught being a woman means. I, on the other hand, never agreed with this rhetoric and dressed in a somewhat modest manner from an early age on. And I was often met with comments from friends and family questioning why I, in their words, chose to dress like an old woman when I was young woman.
After years of pressure I finally gave in when I began working by showing my cleavage, albeit very little , but still it was enough to make me feel naked and on display. But it seemed like a better alternative to having my modesty constantly questioned with insinuations that I wasn’t a woman because I dressed modestly. And I often got compliments from men and women regarding it. These compliments made me feel small, invisible and powerless.
That quote from Meenakshi Gigi Durham regarding disempowerment stuck with me for months. By the time I heard it, I had been a Muslim for some time and I realized that wearing hijab was a form of empowerment. I no longer had to be on display. I had a choice.
Unfortunately, whilst I chose to wear a hijab I had no idea what that actually meant. I didn’t really think about it much instead I copied Muslim girls I saw around. So I covered my arms, wore skinny jeans (which I always hated but suffice to say I could find no loose fitting pants at the time) and I wore a short dress that came down to my knees. I also gave my intentions no thought until people started to ask me why I was wearing a hijab. The question dumbfounded me. And it started me thinking about what modesty really is in Islam and was I dressing appropriately?
Needless to say Allah turned my heart before my mind caught up. I was getting dressed for work one day and looking in the mirror, I said no. No to the pants I was wearing. I just couldn’t and I grabbed the only full length skirt I had, which I wore for the next month.
I once thought the idea of wearing an abaya with a headscarf that covered my head was something I would never ever do. Yet, on a warm summer day I was walking past and Islamic clothing store and one caught my eye. I felt drawn to it and when I tried it on, the look for delight on my face caused the girl in the shop to nod in approval. We exchanged a look of understanding. I felt absolutely beautiful and extremely comfortable . Yet, I did not question why I was choosing to wear this outfit. The idea of why had left me until I was met with discrimination both in the workplace, on the street by strangers and from my own family. My younger sister in particular was especially harsh when she said I was sacrificing my personality by choosing to dress Islamically correct. Only one of my brothers supported me saying I looked beautiful. He commented that by not being able to see my shape it added to my inner beauty.
After some time due to the discrimination I experienced at work in particular from my male boss, who once I started to wear abaya’s and jilbabs no longer looked at me when he spoke to me and began a campaign to fire me, I started to question why I was dressing this way. For some time I did modify my dress to please others and this caused me a great deal of distress.
I began searing online for explanations about how a Muslim woman should dress and why? The why was in particular important . Yet, I only got more and more confused. Clarity came in the form of a 3 day seminar entitled , Fashion, Culture and Islam by the Al Maghrib Institute. Those three days solidified for me that first I needed to correct and purify my intentions. Yes, dressing Islamically correct as a woman is indeed empowering, yet it is the the reason to do so. I asked myself do you love Allah? And do you want to please Him? And of course the answer was a resounding YES! From that moment on my intention was to please Allah. And whilst discrimination is difficult to deal with I simply stopped caring what others thought. All that mattered and still matters is pleasing Allah. And now when I am discriminated against due to how I choose to dress I respond with a smile, and I shrug it off. When I am physically assaulted I defend myself. But I never question why I am dressing modestly and I would have it no other way.
In the Glorious Quran Allah tells us :
“And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.” Surah An Nur 31
If you are contemplating dressing Islamically correct do so to please Allah. And whatever hardships you face due to are worth it. Because pleasing Allah is all that matters.
Now I beautify myself without sexualizing myself. Allah loves beauty.
For more information on dressing in an Islamically appropriate way please read the following article.
Nour M. Fox