I have a confession to make: Throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, I lied about my daily required prayers to my family. I’d often say that I had already prayed, when I actually hadn’t.
I also lied on several occasions during Ramadan, pretending to fast while secretly having a belly full of food.
Now, before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion, I should probably explain myself. Lying about these things was my attempt at maintaining modesty (hayaa). It may sound strange when I put it that way, but in many Muslim households this is a norm, especially regarding a woman’s menstrual period.
The women who “bend the truth” in such a way have good intentions, but sadly, they have usually been told throughout their lives that their periods should be treated as something secretive and even shameful.
So if they openly tell their male family members that they are unable to pray and fast for some time because it’s their time of the month, or that they’re in pain and need to rest because of PMS, they may be considered very immodest.
I have also seen girls and women show this type of modesty in other ways, such as refusing to put on nail polish during their period.
They fear that a man may notice and understand what it signifies. Some girls also drag themselves out of bed at 3 A.M. during Ramadan in order to eat “suhoor,” and/or stay hungry and dehydrated all day pretending to fast, even though they are exempt from these obligations and should be taking it easy.
However, this doesn’t only happen with menstrual issues. There are times when women who sincerely want and intend to pray end up missing their required prayer because there are men around.
Out of modesty (since they don’t want to go into certain positions of prayer in front of unrelated males), they choose to skip the prayer entirely and then feel guilty and conflicted after the prayer time runs out.
Some women are also shamed if they reveal any more of their body at home than they do in public, so they take off their headscarves, but cover up to their wrists and ankles.
This is often not done out of a genuine feeling of modesty and a conviction that it’s the right thing to do, but because they don’t want to be called out for showing their lower legs or their arms.
You’d think there would be a basis for all of this in our religion, since Islam places a huge emphasis on modesty. But body shaming and socially-induced self-consciousness shouldn’t be confused with modesty.
These kinds of unnecessary and unfair restrictions have the potential to really harm a girl’s self-esteem and negatively impact her perception of Islam and Muslims, even from a young age.
Yes, hayaa is important, but we shouldn’t try to enforce rules that Allah (SWT) and His Messenger (SAWS) didn’t put into place themselves. We also shouldn’t actively avoid mentioning or discussing topics that are explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an and many hadiths.
Ladies (both young and old) who were raised in Muslim households, or in families that placed a similar emphasis on modesty, should take a step back and determine whether their circumstances are just and fair to them.
We should try to normalize women’s issues and display a religiously-balanced practice of modesty. If this isn’t possible for some reason, or that time has already passed, it’s still important not to let the next generation of girls go through the same thing. At the very least, we can attempt to initiate this shift in the lives of our daughters and other young Muslim girls.
Much of this change will come from educating male family members, as unpleasant as that may sound. Trust me, I know it’s not easy.
I still remember the very uncomfortable looks on the faces of my father and brother the first time I mentioned to them that I was unable to join them in their congregational prayer. They knew what I meant, and it was awkward for all of us. But, it also really helped to break the ice. Well, at least it was a start.
From there it only got easier for us as a family.
Have confidence in your body, and don’t let society or cultural norms trick you into thinking there’s something shameful about it. You’re exactly the way God intended you to be, and you shouldn’t have to hide that.
While modesty is important, so is your well being, both mentally and physically. Don’t let culture trick you into being embarrassed about being a girl.