3 Things People Assume About Me, Just Because I Dress Like This

Photo: Courtesy of Zahra Aljabri.
I dress modestly. In practice, it means that I wear long sleeves and full-length pants and skirts, which doesn’t feel like that big a departure from the way that many women across all faiths (and non-faiths) are dressing. And like other women who have their own particular style guidelines (whether it’s gender-neutral or all black, preppy, or girly), I feel empowered and liberated by how I’ve chosen to dress.

Even now, with Donald Trump as our president-elect, I’m committed to my decision to dress modestly, including wearing a headscarf. I know that there has been an increase in the acts of hate and harassment against Muslims since his victory; however, I refuse to let hate push me to give up on my beliefs. While some may take modest dressing as "foreign" or "other" and claim that I don’t belong here because of it, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the U.S., people from all faiths dress modestly, which makes sense because all of the world’s major religions extol modesty as a virtue.

Choosing what to wear is very personal: It reflects your feelings, beliefs, and even mood. For me, anchoring the way I dress around modesty helps me remember my character: my contributions to my family and my community, how I respond to adversity, and the way I treat others. And I need those reminders now more than ever as people on both sides, including myself, are feeling angry and forgotten, and cast as caricatures. Because I cover my hair, many people assume many things about me that aren’t true, and can be incredibly demeaning and foster intolerance. Here are some of the most common things thrown my way:

Because I dress modestly, I’m oppressed.
It’s a ubiquitous stereotype that modestly dressed, headscarf-wearing Muslim women are oppressed. The thinking is that a man — my father, a brother, or my husband — forced me to cover up, and that it’s one of the ways that I am being oppressed by the men in my life. Remember when Trump asserted that because Ghazala Khan, the gold-star mother of a slain American-Muslim soldier, wore a headscarf, it meant she didn’t have the right to speak?

This line of reasoning is problematic for two reasons. One, it casts dressing in a revealing way as objectively and intrinsically more free than dressing modestly. And two, it implies that women cannot independently choose to dress modestly. Here’s the thing — it’s true that there are far too many women who are forced to dress “modestly” around the world. But in places where men control the ways women dress, clothing is almost always a symptom of a system of oppression against women that comes in the form of limited political power, employment opportunities, and access to education. In other words, modesty on its own is not oppressing women — if women in these oppressed communities started wearing bikinis, they’d still continue to be oppressed.

Here’s an example that throws a wrench into this assumption: In Indonesia, women participate in public and private life. They vote, hold office, have jobs, and can make decisions about their own bodies and life — their dressing modestly is a religious and cultural norm that women freely adopt.

Telling a woman that she is oppressed because she dresses modestly is never the answer — especially if she is oppressed (assigning one belief system onto her instead of another still robs her of her agency). And in my case, and the cases of many contemporary Muslim women, we made those choices for ourselves. Assuming that modesty is not my choice demotes me from a thinking being, and perpetuates the same stereotypes that hold all women back.
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Photo: Courtesy of Zahra Aljabri.
Because I dress modestly, I’m not a feminist.
Here’s what feminism says: Women should have the same political, economic, personal, and social rights as men. So being able to go topless without judgment or backlash, just as men do, would be proof of equality. But that narrative has to be a spectrum — women have just as much a right to wear crop tops as they do a hijab.

I’m a feminist. I believe that anyone should be able to dress in any way, without it reflecting on our promiscuity, intelligence, self-esteem, political leanings, or sexual preferences. As a feminist, I feel dressing modestly is just as empowering and liberating a choice as it is to be revealing. In both cases, women are asserting control and ownership of their bodies, demanding that they be judged by their actions and not by their appearance.

In fact, there are many women who choose to dress modestly fighting for women’s rights and liberation. Look at President Obama's adviser Dalia Mogahed, Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, fashion designer Hana Tajima, NY State Judge Carolyn Walker, filmmaker Lena Khan, singer/songwriter Yuna, and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. These are just a few examples of Muslim women advocating and pushing boundaries while dressing modestly and wearing a headscarf.

Because I dress modestly, I’m a prude.

Recently, I spoke with Jewish actress Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory, who expressed her frustration about this aspect of modesty: “People think that if you dress modestly, you’re not a sexual person.” I tend to agree. Dressing modestly doesn’t mean that I don’t acknowledge or recognize my sexuality. Nor does it mean that I do not appreciate, love, or take care of my body. I simply control when and to whom it is expressed and revealed to. I choose to separate my public and private expressions of overt sexuality.

The way I dress has nothing to do with my sex drive. The way I dress was not imposed on me. Nor does it limit or prevent me from pursuing and achieving my dreams. Modesty may have deep roots and many connotations, but don’t let its long history obscure its appeal, power, and relevance for modern women.
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