If I was given a penny for every time a Muslim man asked me why I don’t wear hijab, I would be a millionaire. I remember being only eight and watching my friend’s dad talk to my parents about the dress I was wearing when I went to their house. Apparently, it was “sinful” for my knees to be showing. He berated my parents for letting me go outside in the dress and not covering me up more because good Muslim girls don’t do that. At no point did he care about my relationship to my religion. He only cared about how well I fit with his definition of a Muslim.
I grew up in a minority sect of Islam known as the Ismailis that does not require women to wear hijab, a scarf covering the hair and neck. Many people who aren’t of the Muslim faith and “modernized” Muslims call us progressive. Meanwhile, other Muslims will consider us illegitimate as a sect and refuse to recognize us.
The underlying issue is that people judge a Muslim woman’s level of devotion by what she wears. American society may view a woman who wears a hijab or burqa, a veil covering all of the face except for the eyes, as extreme, yet fellow Muslims may consider her as failing to be spiritual enough.
I have never seen a Muslim man have to deal with this unnecessary attention from the Muslim community. Though my religion has a similar concept of covering for men, my off the shoulder top or my friend’s hijab will always generate more gossip than a man’s shorts.
Even if Muslim women like me do dress modestly, tiny mistakes like a strand of hair poking out from a girl’s hijab automatically seem to receive criticism. Whenever I am spending time with my hijabi friends, it annoys me to see how random men they don’t even know comment on their social media posts or approach them in public about how they’re wearing their hijab. Even if it’s as small as a little eyeliner or a slightly figure-fitting shirt, they receive judgment for not being “modest” enough.
Muslim women like me further feel pressure rather than relief when we enter a Muslim dominated space. While I was usually allowed to wear whatever I wanted, the rules would change whenever I would enter a restaurant or shop that Muslims would frequently visit. All of a sudden, my parents and I would worry about me showing my shoulders or revealing my calves because the people there might find it disrespectful.
My clothing even becomes an issue when I try to celebrate a religious holiday. When I was fasting during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan this summer, I spent sixteen hours in the blistering Texas heat without food and water just to be told that my choice of clothing was incorrect for fasting and apparently not conservative enough.
No matter where I go, I feel my freedom to express myself being clamped down. Instead of Muslim women changing themselves for the world, the world should accept our clothes and us. I should not feel constant stress from other people’s perception of how I dress, and I should not have to change my wardrobe to accommodate others.
This issue is not just limited to Muslim women. Women regardless of faith are often expected to appear a certain way. At formal events, while men can usually slide by with a button up, women deal with the conflict of being overdressed vs underdressed, wearing too much makeup vs too little, or being overexposed vs underexposed. Even if a woman meets the perfect balance of all these standards, they still will be subject to comparisons to other women. Because of how much emphasis society places on a woman’s appearance, their clothing decides for them how others will view them and treat them.
No woman should have to sacrifice their individuality to please others and be respected.
This story was originally published on The Marquee on October 3, 2019.