Behenchara

Self Image and What Women Wear by Mahnoor Fatima 

 Cover Art by Alina Tosif

Trigger warning for some mentions of troubled eating and body shaming. 

I feel like if society didn’t scrutinize everything I put on my body, my relationship with it would have been completely different. From a young age, I was continuously fed subtle messaging that said “girls who wore the hijab were good, girls who didn’t were bad”. I remember my mom trying to force me to cover my head when I was in school, and I wish I would have been given the grace and the opportunity to work through my spirituality and relationship with the hijab removed from the patriarchal lens. 

Of course, I resisted the pushes my mom gave me. But the last straw came when my father declared that I won’t be allowed to study after my O levels, or so I thought. It was actually when the man I wanted to marry told me that I wasn’t good enough for him until I started wearing the hijab and an abaya. 

Why is it that something that a woman is supposed to wear to please Allah has turned into something that people keep forcing us into, from birth to death? And then why do people then turn around, insisting with all anger that it’s a choice? It should have been, but it stops being one when you start making laws and rules around it, when you start insisting (falsely) that anyone who isn’t covered from head to toe is unsafe, it less than. 

I left that man, and I didn’t let my father dictate my life for very long, but what all this did do was drive me away from religion and purdah. It played a very big part in who I am today – someone who is, for the most part, not religious. But even today, I’d be kidding myself if I thought I had power over my own body, or to wear whatever I want to.

Conversations around women’s clothes rarely ever recognize how the way we look and present ourselves to the world affects our mental health. I recently joined a PCOS support group on Facebook, having gotten the diagnosis myself, and more than half the posts are women asking how they can trim this part of their body or the other. The two most horrifying cases were when a woman asked how she could increase her breast size because her husband kept telling her to, and an already underweight woman in her early thirties asking how she could further reduce weight or get rid of her seemingly building belly – because her husband kept telling her to fix her figure. I don’t think people realize how damaging this attitude and these statements are. 

On the flip side, never do we empower women to dress how they want to, to feel confident in their bodies, and to feel beautiful however they need to. Almost all discourse around the hijab and how to dress both before and after marriage is all about satisfying your future/new husband, but what about our duty to ourselves? 

It’s time for women to talk more about their struggles with self-image, it’s time for men to be educated about what real bodies look like, it’s time that we stop acting like women’s bodies and everything we put on them – especially the hijab – is for men. Either to protect us from them, or to satisfy our husband’s ego. 

Today, I constantly battle with the urge to starve myself so I can feel better about myself, a complete disinterest in the clothes I buy because whether I like them or not, or whether this is how I want to look, is just an afterthought in my head whenever I buy something. There are days when I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror, and I constantly wonder if it would have been different if I dressed for myself and no one else. If no one else but me cared about the way I looked, and if I would have found my way to wearing the hijab out of my own free will, for the right reasons this time.

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