The first time I became aware of my body, I was 12 years old at an outdoor water park. I sat in an inflated tube, swaying back and forth in an obnoxiously loud wave pool with my sister and friends. It was a perfect day until it wasn’t. At one moment, my sister and friends had been taken elsewhere by the manufactured tide and I sat swaying along, enjoying the blazing sun on my face and the cool of the water on my feet. I was then approached by two white teenage boys, who I first thought were mistaking me for someone else. One of them looks at me, stifles a chuckle and eloquently slurs:
“Hey, I just wanted to let you know my boy over here thinks you’re hot.”
The boys erupted into a fit of laughter and swam away, likely never to think of that moment again. They were to move on in the world, unaware of the effect of their words on the women they encounter, unaware of its effects on me. But I sat there, suddenly aware of the layers of extra fabric clinging to my skin, embarrassed and choked by the polyester hijab that circled my face; suddenly aware of how ridiculous I must have looked for two white boys to approach me and jokingly tell me they thought I looked “hot.” In that moment, what was a perfect day turned into a demarcation of when I first became uncomfortable being a visibly Muslim woman in a country that valued women based on their appearance. I didn’t tell anyone about this — not my sisters, not my friends. I just wanted to shrivel up like my pruned feet in that wave pool, never to be seen again by anyone.
Since then, I’ve always known my body, a woman’s body, a Muslim woman’s body, to be a complicated thing. And I don’t mean that in a feminist, body-positive way, though I am both of those things. What I mean is, a woman’s body sometimes feels like a free-for-all, a legislated playground that starts to feel like less of a body and more of a foreign object that does not feel in line with the rest of one’s being.
After that moment, I tried to minimize the parts of me that made me visibly Muslim. I no longer prayed in public and sometimes opted for a hoodie instead of a hijab. When I was in high school, I became obsessed with makeup because it was the only part of my appearance that I could control. Every paycheck that I got from my cashier job at the dreaded local supermarket went straight to Ulta and Sephora. I would watch tutorials and wake up two hours early for school just to cover my face in extravagant paints and powders, to look like someone I wanted to present to the world. When my mom criticized my makeup addiction and questioned who I was putting in all that extra effort for, I shot back with the quintessential response: “I’m doing it for me.” And like many women, I think I started to believe it. I started to believe that my desire to make myself more desirable stemmed from myself and was uninfluenced by external factors and opinions. To an extent, women do perform these things for themselves. It is a form of self-preservation to take care of oneself, to put meticulous care and effort into carefully coordinated outfits, perfectly manicured nails, curled and coated eyelashes. But I couldn’t help but wonder if at some point, for some women, did this desire stop being a form of self-preservation and become a manifestation of social expectations?
Some time in high school I was introduced to white feminism, which at the time I thought was just feminism, not thinking about the ways it often excluded women who looked like me. Feminism told me I should wear what I want, date who I want, do what I want and I loved it. I championed the agenda to my Arab and Muslim family, who told me not to be like those Godless Amerkaan who showed their bodies and slept around and didn’t care about their family’s reputation. Feminism told me all women were equal and that our choices were only ours to make. It talked about freeing the nipple and empowering women to strip down, but did nothing to empower women who chose to cover up. It talked about free access to abortion in America, but not about forced sterilizations and sexual assault in refugee camps. It talked down on women I knew and loved, women like my mother and my aunts and my grandmother who chose to stay at home and raise children, raise villages, which was a world of work in itself. It told me to make my own choices, but didn’t tell me what to make of the women who did not have access to the same choices. It didn’t tell me how to balance expressing my individuality and owning my body while remaining respectful to my culture and true to my faith.
Becoming comfortable in my skin is a process. For Muslim women, expectations of what one should be are drastically different for women who choose to wear the hijab versus those who don’t. In the Muslim faith, hijab is a commandment of God when a girl comes of age, as are praying, fasting, giving to charity, etc. However, like everything else in life and religion, every choice is a personal one and everyone’s journey is different. Nonetheless, by putting themselves on display, women who choose to wear the hijab are exposing themselves to the unwarranted and relentless ideals imposed on them by two competing sides — Western society and the Muslim community.
On one end, we are being told by Western society: You are oppressed, and in order to liberate yourself, you must reject the restrictive notions imposed upon you by your community. But this liberation comes at a price: We will set you free, but at the same time, we will make you want to change everything about yourself that makes you “other.” Your Arab nose, your thick curly hair. We will eat up the parts of your culture we deem worthy. Your delicious food, your exotic dancing. We will don hijabs on scantily clad models on runways but scoff in pity when it’s a part of your everyday life. Almost every Arab woman I know has either gotten or talked about getting plastic surgery. Nose jobs and face lifts, keratin hair treatments, thinned and tattooed eyebrows. And the discourse surrounding these treatments is mostly positive and uplifting. It is a woman’s choice what to do with her body. Yes, but to what extent is it really that woman’s choice when notions of what she should look like are ingrained into her from the moment she is old enough to switch on the television?
On the other end, our body is an open-ended discussion for Muslim and Arab men, who drown out the sound of their own shortcomings with the sound of us messing up. They tell us our clothes are not modest enough and simultaneously shame us for not being “open-minded enough” and willing to bend our rules for their own pleasure. Elder women look at you in disgust in the grocery line because the strands falling out of your loosened silk hijab tell them I am American before I am Muslim, before I am Arab, before I am anything.
I’ll give you an example. Last summer, after returning from my study abroad program, I was working at a small Yemeni restaurant near my house. One day, I was serving a table of older men, dressed in abayas and turbans who looked at me a little too long when I brought them their appetizers. I ignored the feeling I got — that pit-in-the-bottom-of-your-stomach feeling that makes you feel like you are on display, that sudden awareness of body — and continued doing my job, even when I saw the men stop my coworker to whisper something in her ear as she walked by. Later on that night, my sister, who is closer friends with my coworker, told me what those men said: They wanted my coworker to tell me that my shirt was too short, that a hijabi like me should dress better in a place like this where men come and are free to look. She was too shy to tell me in the restaurant and I’m glad she didn’t.
When I first put on my hijab at 9 years old, I was not thinking about these things. I was not thinking about my physical appearance or how I would go on to be perceived in the world. I wasn’t thinking about how the deliberate covering of my body would lead to an undeliberate uncovering of my identity in every room I walked through — that I would be judged as Muslim first, human second. I didn’t think about the humiliation I would feel at that waterpark and how subsequently, swimming — something I used to love and enjoy— would become something I dreaded and avoided. I was thinking: My mom and my sister wear it. I love my mom and my sister. I love God, and he wants me to wear it. And I never regretted it, never saw it as anything other than an extension of my identity, a testament to my faith in God, until that day at the waterpark. After that, it became something that clearly announced me as “other,” something boys would never find attractive, something my American peers would never understand or accept. I worried they would think I was somehow less educated, somehow less American than them, somehow more docile and less assertive and more passive. I don’t remember my first experience with discrimination in America; at this point these instances have blended into a myriad of little moments, microaggressions and blatant remarks, but I can tell you about the first time I became aware that my body was not always something that would feel like mine.
When I got to college, it occurred to me that I could remove my hijab. The thoughts began as creeping little nudges, which my mom wrote off as “devil whispers” when I told her, advising me to just pray them away. I could not even count on my two hands how many girls from my youth were removing their hijabs. In some way, it empowered me. In another way, I resented them because they were doing what I did not have the courage to. I meditated on the idea for months and months. I came up with a list of reasons. I watched too many videos and talked to too many people. I talked to girls who did take it off, why they did and how they felt before and how they felt now. Most of the girls described a feeling of disconnect with who they felt they were on the inside and how they presented themselves on the outside. I resonated with this. One of my friends, though, said something to me that I still think about.
She said, “Usually, when you are putting this much weight and stress on something physical, there is something much deeper going on. I think there is a disconnect somewhere in your life, or between you and God, and a physical change is the only way you feel you can take control of it.”
I thought about this a lot. Since coming to college, I definitely did not feel as “Muslim” as I used to. I still prayed five times a day, but most of the time it was out of a force of habit, not something I felt connected to.
Then it was summer and this internal conflict still did not go away. I decided that this summer, since I would be on a study abroad trip alone in Greece, I would finally be away from the opinions of everyone and I could make the decision for myself. My mind was mostly made up. On one of our weekends, my new friends and I took a trip to a nearby lake in Athens, and I decided that would be the day. We arrived at the beach, and the sparkling blue water looked so inviting in the scorching heat. There was no sand in sight, only vast stretches of various rocks, but nonetheless we settled down and my friends immediately plunged in, swimming away to the far end of the shore. I took this as my chance, removing my hijab and the long sleeve shirt I had on over my swimsuit. I scurried down the rocky path to the water, ignoring the sharp pains that ensued with every step, ignoring the lump in my throat caused by guilt. As soon as I jumped in, feeling the cold and salty embrace of seawater flooding all my senses, I was interrupted by a sharp stinging pain in my left foot. It felt like I stepped in a pile of needles, and I climbed back out onto the rocky platform to assess the damage. My foot was littered with black spikes and red scratches, and when I tried to pull one out, a trickle of blood ran from my toe to my heel. Being a big believer in signs and superstitions, I took this as a sign, and I sat to think about how I felt.
And how I felt was stupid. I thought this moment would be this big liberating experience, feeling the sun on my skin, feeling the wind in my hair for the first time in ages, being alone, finally swimming again supposedly free of baggage, taking control over my body. And what did my body do? It failed me. I left the beach that day in my hijab.
Over the next few days in Greece, I made an effort to care a little bit less about myself and more about the world around me. Maybe in doing so I could discover a sliver of who “me” was, devoid of the existential questions that tainted what was supposed to be the trip of my lifetime. I kept my eyes open to little details and tried to imprint them into my memory. Stray cats nestled on sidewalks, yellow and peach pastel-colored houses with blue shutters, snippets of conversations in a language I could not understand, graffiti painted onto white walls in alleyways. We visited a mosque during one of our walking tours, a mosque that had been through many phases and served as many different things. A church, a school, a military bakery. Still it stood, as an emblem of the past and hope for the future, and it reminded me that wherever I was and whatever I looked like, my identity would always be mine. It was something more than skin deep, something I defined and redefined for myself, day in and day out. When I was walking home late one night, I was greeted in Arabic twice by kind strangers on the street, and the next day I even received the Islamic greeting, “Salam’alaykum,” meaning “peace be upon you.”
During one of our first few nights staying on a little island, our Egyptian waiter, upon seeing my hijab, asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from America but that I was Lebanese, his eyes lit up and his tongue quickly switched to Arabic as if it had been waiting years to be able to. I could tell that for him, I represented a piece of home that he was missing here on this island. For me, he represented a connection that I wouldn’t have had had I not been wearing my faith on my sleeve that particular day. We still keep in contact.
I realized what sometimes alienates me the most is also what connects me the most, wherever I am in the world, and I was not ready to give that up.
After that trip, I happened upon a Washington Post article by Saba Ali in which she describes the moment she decided to try life without her hijab, which she had worn for decades.
She writes: “I don’t know what I expected that morning, my trial run at life without the scarf. Would I get struck down by lightning? Would there be applause? Would I be any less Muslim? Or just more me?”
Like me, Saba had become bogged down by the expectations and baggage that come with being a visibly Muslim woman, and decided to see what it felt like to be free from them. She walked down a busy street, expecting a monumental moment of clarity. Like me, she put her hijab back on after that stroll. I am still learning how to be okay with not having all the answers, how to make something resembling clarity out of little signs, gut feelings, moments of realization and even anticlimactic un-realization.
I realize now that I have never written about my relationship with my hijab or my body, and this is probably because I have never given myself permission to. Because writing about it meant thinking about how moments of oscillation between self-confidence and hyper-awareness of physicality permeated and shaped every aspect of my life. This ever-present dichotomy is what it means to be a Muslim-American. Speaking about my experiences was never just speaking about my experiences — I carried with me the experiences of so many women like me. I carried the experiences and traumas of my family. I carried secrets that were not mine to tell. Even secrets that were mine to tell were not mine to tell, because some aspects of them felt like airing out dirty laundry that best remained hidden. I carried things that risked painting me as a “bad Muslim,” as if there was a binary that one had to exist on either end of, as if an entire religion was gatekept by someone determining who gets and does not get to call themself a Muslim.
What I was struggling with the most was why a decision about what to do or not to do with my body was attached to so much stigma, so much shame, so many opinions that, when examined, were not my own. Where did this shame, this stigma come from? For so long, I attributed it to religion. Then I attributed it to culture, Arab culture in particular. In our culture, so much pain, trauma and necessary conversations are buried under the word aayb, which means shameful, wrong, and is so often weaponized against women when doing things that are deemed out of line with one’s cultural and moral obligations. This stigma runs deep; it costs lives. In my little enclave of a community, we do not talk about mental health, or the underlying causes of the young lives that are being lost to substance abuse and suicide. Families of teens who have overdosed cover up the incident, writing “car accident” on the obituary. Arab and/or Muslim girls like myself never talk about their heartbreaks or sexual health or their pain because aayb, they should not have been romantically involved before marriage anyway. As a result, this pain gets buried deep inside, and it gets passed on and no one knows what to do with it.
There must be a way to dig this pain out, to hold the fragments up to the sun and allow them to catch light without exploiting my community. There must be a way to do this without subscribing to purely Western notions of what it means to be free. Pressure to subscribe to the Western feminism that reverberated in every corner from my college classrooms to my Instagram feed allowed me to neglect to see how the women in my life embodied feminism, in every essence of the word, without even knowing it. My mother, covered from head to toe, raising five children, working a minimum wage job, pushing through cultural taboo to get a long-overdue divorce. My friends who felt judged for choosing not to drink in college or participate in hook-up culture, my friends who felt judged back home for exactly the opposite. The pressure allowed me to neglect seeing through myself, reconciling the parts of me that often seemed at odds with each other.
When I had my own “trial run” at a life of not wearing my hijab, there was no lightning, no applause, no epiphany. In life there seldom is. There are just the decisions you make and what comes after. I wish I could say that here I am, older, wiser, with my mind made up. Will I end up taking off my hijab? Who knows! The point is, the decision to wear your faith on your sleeve is a deeply personal one, and it would be a lot easier without the shame and judgment that often accompanies it. On countless occasions, I have received comments from friends and family alike, joking about my “commitment issues,” saying “Either wear the scarf right or don’t wear it. Why wear it halfway?” This used to enrage me. Now I just say, because I exist halfway. Halfway between Arab and American, halfway between pious and sinful. My faith in God is the one thing that I have been able to hold on to throughout my life, but it is indeed a shaky one. In college, I have done my obligatory night prayers before going out to a party on Friday night, asking for forgiveness on my way out. The hair peeking from the front of my hijab does not say I am rebelling against the oppression my religion and family inflict upon me. To some people, it does. Some women are unfortunately forced to wear it or forced not to for safety reasons. For me, though, it says I am trying.
Today, sitting here writing this, I flip through pages of my travel journal from my time in Greece. On one of our walking tours, my professor took us to the Temple of Poseidon, told us to look over at the sea and mountains in our horizon, and to write what we saw and felt. After the sensory details, my entry reads:
Somewhere, beyond these blue waters and shadow islands, beyond the blanket of sky, is a world I’ll never in this lifetime be able to fathom. Will I taste it? Will the road there ever get easier? If I could speak to God, I would ask him to free my mind. I would ask him what he wants of me. Except I can speak to him, and I can hear his answers. In the lump in my chest, in the lingering feelings upon waking from my dreams. In a perfect world I am twirling in a sundress, my hair dancing in ringlets around me. I’m not afraid of anything — not the sun, not the stares, not the torment of the afterlife. I’m not seen and I don’t see anyone. In a perfect world my body finally feels like mine, my skin, my mind. They welcome me home. I feel God within me, not disapproving from afar.
I think back to what my friend said, about it being deeper than the physicality of it. In my journey to find God and myself, I am learning to drown out the noise of what everyone thinks my relationship with my religion should be, what my relationship with my body should be. I am learning to see my body as mine to love and adorn, and as a vessel to walk me home, simultaneously.
There is a poem I love by Mohja Kahf, called “My body is not your battleground” in which she says, “My body is not your battleground / My hair is neither sacred nor cheap / neither the cause of your disarray / nor the path to your liberation. My hair will not bring progress and clean water / if it flies unbraided in the breeze / It will not save us from our attackers / if it is wrapped and shielded from the sun.”
Maybe one day I’ll cover entirely, maybe one day I won’t at all. Maybe I’ll change my mind multiple times. This morning I wrap my hijab, apply a coat of lipstick and do my eyeliner. I call my family overseas; I speak to them in Arabic and then open up my computer to keep up with American politics. On my way to welcoming myself home, I embrace the space in between.
Contributor Maya Mokh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org