I had a transformative makeover that left me feeling totally renewed and poised. It all started when I received a gift some time ago. It was wrapped up really well. I unwrapped it carefully, layer by layer. To my surprise, it was Islam. Feeling compelled, I slipped it on. At first I was kind of awkward, timid to step outside in it. I loved it, but what would people say? What would they think?
After a while, it became part of me. I found it comfortable and beautiful. It taught me that I had been crafted, designed, thoughtfully developed — to be me. A female. This Islam increasingly strengthened and empowered me. My femininity — Islam helped me embrace it wholeheartedly. Confidence replaced self-doubt; it ran through me, ultimately emanating and radiating from within. For the first time, I became proud to be a woman.
BEFORE THE MAKEOVER
Growing Up Female
For many girls, discovering how overarching, pervasive and fetishized the concept of beauty is in our culture comes as a rude awakening. My understanding of what I was supposed to become, was formed in part via movies, shows, magazines, music, and probably the over-sexualized Barbie dolls I used to play with.
I remember pre-teen trips to the mall with my friends. Gazing in awe at models and mannequins, I surmised how I was “supposed to look.” Weighed down with self-consciousness I, like too many other females, agonized over my appearance and behavior. The pressure overshadowed and really destroyed what could have been many enriching experiences.
The Tomboy Solution
Sometimes, it was just easier to be boyish. To hang out with boys, to wear the loose t-shirts they wore, to be rough and grungy. It was a relief to be away from the competition and feeling of inadequacy amongst my girlfriends. I felt freer; it was a reprieve from the intense expectations I had been facing. But, that abandon was not to last.
Puberty Rained on my Parade
As puberty arrived, even the boys became a problem. They began to sense female sexuality and it was no longer possible to be one of them. Rude comments and discomforting observations made being a girl more tormenting than ever. As boys began desiring girls, additional pressure was applied on us, to have a great body, to be popular, to be the top-pick, to be “hot.”
We witnessed our bodies’ changing, dismayed to find that they weren’t developing into material for the cover of a magazine. Looking into a mirror while pinching away body parts that “shouldn’t” be there is a sad part of growing up female these days.
So much time is wasted wishing to be different, which leads to the constant feeling of failure. Failure we have absolutely no control over, because we didn’t choose the shapes of our noses or the structure of our hips. Many girls teeter on the brink of self-destruction because of the imposition of impractical, artificial standards.
Full Grown and Out in the Real World
I eventually quietly rebelled against society’s demands of me. I became artsy, audacious and gained a certain self-confidence by choosing to be different. I started taking fashion classes at Manhattan’s FIT during high school. I had freed myself from the bondage of cultural expectations, but I discovered a new reality when I began commuting independently to the city.
What I found is described accurately in an article published on upworthy.com a while back. The author detailed what so many women experience on a daily basis. How we are forced to attempt to deescalate and brush off situations that, upon closer examination, are clearly unacceptable. She describes this as the “reality of being a woman” in our world:
We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man, or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to.
We are sexualized before we even understand what that means. We get stares and comments before we can even drive. From adult men. We feel uncomfortable but don’t know what to do, so we go about our lives. – Gretchen Kelly*
That article went totally viral when it was posted; it’s still circulating more than a year later. The reason being that it resonates deeply with women. It exposes a reality most women conceal.
Judging by all the discussions on sexism and gender equality, you may be led to believe that women are in fact respected and treated equally nowadays. Unfortunately, we haven’t come as far as we like to believe.
I think it’s a mistake to confuse the word equal with the same — when in fact men and women are different and our differences should be respected. Females are under impossible pressure to reach unattainable standards of beauty — and meanwhile, men are shamed for being attracted to women. This contradictory messaging about sexuality has unsavory ramifications.
A Dangerous Reality
The American National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) reports that 1 out of 5 American women will be raped in their lifetime, and 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before they reach the age of 18. In 2008 the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported huge increases in incidences of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault over a two-year period. Not to mention the epidemic of pornography addiction, which devastates far too many families.
These statistics indicate that we are headed in the wrong direction; our attempt at gender equality is looking like a colossal fiasco. These issues are symptomatic of a much deeper problem. I believe, due in part to the unnatural defining of men and women, and the denial of our innate sexuality. Removing the healthy channeling of that sexuality is resulting in a hazardous imbalance.
So Where Does Islam Come In?
I can’t ignore the very real fact that even modern Muslim societies have problems when it comes to sexism, abuse and varying degrees of all the issues I have mentioned above. They need to be addressed just as much as our failings in the West.
But, my makeover didn’t have anything to do with Muslims, it was directly related to actual Islam. The transformation I have undergone was internal and external, spiritual and physical.
The most important change occurred within. Islam changed my own attitude towards femininity — towards myself. Honestly, before Islam, I subconsciously devalued females. I guess that’s why I felt the urge to assert my value by demonstrating that I was on equal footing with men.
Enter Islam: Islam taught me that we women have been created intentionally; that men and women are of equal value; we’ve been created differently so as to complement one another. God is concerned with women’s deeds and devotion no less than with men’s. God said:
I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female, you are equal to one another. [Sûrat Âl ¢Imrân, 3:195]
To add emphasis and ensure that there’s no ambiguity on this, the Quran sometimes states the same thing twice — once for men, once for women — such as in Sûrat Al-Aḥzâb, 33:35, reassuring us: Devoted men, and devoted women. See also 4:124; 16:97; 33:35; 40:40; 49:13.
Internal Changes Led to External Ones
So, there I was with this new realization – this affirmation – that I was imbued with worth the moment I was created. My femininity itself is valuable. Furthermore, if I do good, my Lord appreciates it more than any mortal ever could.
The characteristics that differentiate women from men – those are the things that make us special, and through which we contribute to the world in ways no man can. This newfound self-esteem naturally led to external changes. I craved to dress more modestly.
The guidelines in Islam for gender relations were enlightening. They protect people, especially women, from all of those undesirable situations described in Gretchen Kelly’s UpWorthy piece. In Islam, God has already given us precautions to take so as to protect ourselves from living that way — we do not have to live “the reality of being a woman.” We can live with dignity and respect.
Islam gave me self-confidence and poise by teaching me to value myself as a female. I changed the way I dressed to reflect my new state of being: a woman devoted to God — like Mary, the Mother of Jesus. I changed the way I interact with the opposite sex. I now have control over my body: who can see it — who can touch me. I’m off-limits. My presence is a privilege.
This makeover powerfully switched my focus away from how people perceive beauty, or sexuality, and instead towards more meaningful endeavors and accomplishments. I’m free now from the shame that was once a part of being a female, and I love it. No more hours in front of the mirror wishing away “flaws”; instead, I see through them. When I look in the mirror I see me. And thank God, I finally love what I see.
* http://www.upworthy.com/this-is-how-a-lifetime-of-potentially-dangerous-situations-affects-every-woman1 and https://driftingthrough.com/2015/11/20/the-thing-all-women-do-that-you-dont-know-about/
Originally published by Al-Jumuah magazine: