In the array of crazy yet insightful conversations my girls and I have, the one that arises most, across the board, is how much women’s bodies are policed. Policed on every damn level from the opposite sex, the same sex, the media, and, of course, family. And recently, the government.
When my Muslim mother started to notice that I was “filling in,” she no longer allowed me to pick out my own clothes. She tried to be clever and gave me two or three choices to choose from the department store then she’d proceed to purchase the largest size they had, which resulted in my entire body being swallowed in a sea of fold and flaps. Most of the time, I looked like I rocked a fitted bed sheet. It was humiliating once I saw what the other kids were wearing. Self-esteem plummeted.
And, I’m not saying that she should’ve allowed me to wear booty shorts and itty-bitty tees so I could fit in, but bed sheets aren’t cool! I also got that we were Muslim and Muslim women in puberty were supposed to dress modestly and cover their hair, but shouldn’t it have been a choice? My choice? Wouldn’t it make more sense to explain the reasoning behind covering and then give the option? Yeah, I was a dumb 13-year-old, but I felt as though she’d already made up her mind that I was going to dress modestly because she said so. Which is fine, but kids are oh-so-clever and during adolescence, we figure out ways to do what the hell we want to do anyway.
And boy, was I clever. Oh, Mom won’t let me wear those tight jeans with the rips in the knee, then I’ll take my allowance, pretend to ride my bike to the convenience store, but really take a detour to the strip mall, and buy those jeans anyway, stuff them in my backpack, sneak them upstairs, and plot another way on how I could wear them to the mall with my friend.
Same thing with the hijab. It wasn’t optional growing up in my household. Initially, I wanted to wear it. Mom wore it and all her friends wore it. Their kids wore it. To me, it was a sign of beauty and ultimate Muslim-ness.
One day, Mom had taken me to get my hair braided and beaded. OMG. I was sooooo ecstatic and it was a change from my usual two cornrows. The beads were small and multicolored. When I walked or shook my head they’d clink together. I was fancy. I couldn’t wait to show the girls in the neighborhood my new do. Mom paid the stylist then at the door handed me my scarf.
My eyes widened. I had to put that, the hijab, over my new hairstyle? I had to cover up the multicolored beads? No one would see it? I slowly took the scarf from her and tied it around my head. My shoulders slumped as I followed her to the minivan.
At that moment, I didn’t want to wear it anymore. But I was young, I hadn’t had a choice.
I have really large hips. It’s hell to find pants that fit. I remember it like it was yesterday, it was our Islamic holiday, Eid, about five years ago. I always wore dresses to the prayer and festivities, but that year, I wanted to try something different. I was going to rock a pant and blazer. I had found the shirt and satin blazer the week before and had tried desperately to find the perfect pair of slacks that were loose. I’d gone to at least seven stores. Eid was the next morning, and I was mad tired, so I had to settle on a pair of slacks that were fitted. I knew that my husband at the time would be a little annoyed, but the under shirt I had covered a bit of my hips. I could get away with it. Or so I thought…
I stepped into the mosque, feeling good and looking great. All the sisters stopped me and looked me up and down. “What a fashionista!” they exclaimed and showered me with kisses and hugs. We took selfies and tons of group photos. I actually mastered the smoky eye look and it turned out amazing. It was a happy occasion. Until I saw him standing with his family. I made my way across the room and tried to hug him. He didn’t hug me back. “What’s wrong?”
“Why are you wearing pants?” he asked.
I scoffed. “What? I can’t wear pants now?”
“My shirt is long,” I replied.
“Everyone can see your shape. Do you see all these men here looking at you, my wife?”
I grabbed his arm. “No one is looking at me.”
He snatched his arm away and left me standing there. I grinned nervously as his sisters frowned judgingly at me from their table.
Later on, I tried to make things better but then he blew up. “Who comes out the house looking like that?” he yelled, darts of spit flying into my face. “You couldn’t have put on an abaya? You embarrassed me.”
I sunk farther down into the seat, crying. “I just wanted to wear a pantsuit this time.”
“They don’t sell looser pants!?!”
“Do you have to scream?” I sat up. “And no, I went to so many stores, and this was what could fit.”
The next Eid, I had learned my lesson. I used my own money to get a dress made. Since, I had embarrassed him so bad and he made me feel like I had just walked in front of his family and the entire mosque in a bikini. The dress was long sleeved, fitted yet flowy at the top with a full swing skirt at the bottom. It was a little big in the waist, so I had the seamstress make me a matching belt.
Once again, I walked into the mosque, greeted by the sisters who swooned over my custom-made dress. My husband was on his phone, leaned against the wall. I snuck up behind him. He looked up and grinned. I twirled then posed. “How do you like my dress?”
He looked me up and down once more, then said. “It’s too tight in the waist, and I can still see your shape.”
My body has been policed by my mother trying to hide my body from men, my ex who tried to disguise my shapely bottom half, women who think I should show more and stop being controlled by my religion, Muslims who tell me that my clothes are too tight and not fitting of a hijabi, by fat-shamers who tell me that I should not wear anything fashionable because fatties should be hidden in a tower or under a bridge, and the government which tells me that religious or cultural head coverings are oppressive.
I can’t walk around nude because I’m asking for rape. I can’t breastfeed my child when he’s hungry because society has sexualized boobies and not what they are actually created for, to feed hungry babies without being publicly shamed. I can’t wear a burkini because it’s making semi-nude people on the beach “uncomfortable.” I can’t wear hijab in the workplace because somehow, wearing a piece of fabric on my head ultimately makes me a part of a terrorist group, makes my co-workers distrust me, makes me do my job less.
I’m here to tell you that we are not dolls to be dressed up. We are not objects despite what the hell everyone else says, what their feelings or opinions are. Muslim, Atheist, or Christian. Our bodies do not belong to our husbands, the government, or workplace cultures. They belong to US. You. Fully and solely. If we want to wear nipple pasties and a thong to the beach or cover in full traditional Islamic-wear it is OUR choice.