by Najma Sharif
People practice hijab in a multitude of ways and really, it isn’t meant to be practiced in uniform. Islam celebrates different cultural expression and hijab happens to be one of the ways to express where we come from and who we are. The way we cover or don’t cover is supposed to be a reflection not only of our modesty, but our culture and time. If one believes that the Quran transcends time and geography, so would the hijab or the idea of modesty that came out of the Quran.
Muslim women that dress modestly have made fashion trends malleable to fit their modest tastes. As gauchos went out of style and skinny jeans became popular, so did longer tunics and different hijab wrapping styles. Even as hijab trends change and our ideas of modesty get debated by people that aren’t even Muslim, when the majority of people discuss hijab today they tend to have one image in mind: a thin, white-passing, light-eyed, smiling Muslim woman with a scarf wrapped around her face. What is considered “modest” is easy to achieve if your body is thin and white. The less curvy you are, the closer you are to whiteness, and the smaller you are physically, the chances are that you can get away with wearing anything without catching flack for it.
But what is modest if you’re a Black Muslim woman? If our bodies are already considered dirty and are already heavily sexualized... How are we supposed to cover our bodies? There’s only a certain amount of layers one can wear in order to cover their curves, the demands placed on curvier and plus-sized women’s bodies are already endless, and the hijab is no exception. The women in my family have always said that the most “correct” way of practicing hijab is covering your entire body so that no one can see your shape––i.e your boobs and your butt and this seems to be the general consensus between most Muslims.
This is an impossible demand for many Muslim women, especially considering what that means. Essentially, this means that in order for me to cover my body properly, I have to wear ill-fitting clothing, I need to disappear into my clothing, be invisible.
Now of course I could wear an abaya, or buy clothing from shops that cater to Muslim women that want to dress modestly, and that tends to be what people suggest... Here’s why that suggestion is annoying, myopic and classist: modest fashion clothing lines are very expensive to make and those “one ummah” clothing lines tend cater to thin women with no curves or shape too.
I tend to find clothes in my size, I’m yellow-brownish enough to be perceived as Black and I have no trouble finding abayas that could swallow me whole but I learned very early that no matter what I wear, I can’t achieve this idea of modesty. My body is inherently immodest and the bigger, darker and curvier a Black Muslim woman is, the more and more difficult it becomes for her to be considered “modest”. Even in hijab, white femininity is the apex of modesty and Black women’s bodies, no matter how covered continue to be hypersexualized.
Miski Muse recently posted a picture on Instagram that was taken down even though she was covered from head to toe, she critiqued Instagram for taking down her picture saying: curvy is tactically seen as immodest, sexualized by default–so my photos are seen as obscene. It’d be naive of me to think that this photo was taken down solely because she’s curvy, and solely because after 9/11 there’s been an obsession with Muslim women’s bodies and sexuality. The hypersexulization and objectification of Black women’s bodies is rooted in a colonialist imperialist framework, and the way people engage with Muslim women’s bodies isn’t just through a white feminist gaze that wants to free Muslim women from the shackles of our religion, this same white feminist gaze fetishizes Black women and obsesses over our sexuality. Our bodies are rendered immodest, hypersexual and invisible and hypervisible simultaneously. Curvy Black Muslim women exist, and each part of their identity informs the other, no one part of their identity can be removed from how people perceive and engage with curvy Black Muslim women’s bodies.
White supremacy is why Black Muslim women aren’t as visible as Arab and white Muslim women. It’s why our favorite Instagram hijabis and turbanistas tend to be very thin and white passing. It’s why non-black Muslim women can wear a turbans, sensationalize and profit off of it. It’s why entire campaigns about wanting to see diverse range of skin tones in hijabi fashion lines are started by non-black women when these women could have easily amplified the voices of Black Muslim fashion bloggers and fashion designers that have been talking about these issues for years. Instead, they decide to center their guilt and profit off a problem they participated in creating the moment they appropriated different African cultures.
Black Muslim women are innovators when it comes to hijabi fashion trends but we never reap the rewards. Hijab fashion to me as a child was found at Eid salah, the women that attended these prayer halls were Sudani, Somali and Oromo women that adorned themselves in jewels and fabrics that people haven’t even dreamed of pairing together. I went down south a couple of Eids and witnessed Black American Muslims wearing headwraps and outfits that were twenty years ahead of their time. Black Muslims were assembling outfits that were ten years ahead of hijabi and modest fashion trends ten years ago. The two Eid salahs were runways for us to flex the newest trends; some Eids you’d see people in similar outfits, other Eids I’d be shocked that I wasn’t aware of what was happening around me...when did everyone decided to wear white from head to toe with white eyeliner? Eid prayer was the place to look for current trends, long before there were fashion blogs and Instagram accounts to peruse through, and even then, we were ahead of what people are wearing today. We made wearing sneakers with long skirts trendy, turbans are home to our motherland, we invented modest fashion street wear, we are the thread that ties the world of modest fashion wear together. Even though our bodies are considered immodest, without Black Muslim women, modest and hijabi fashion even wouldn’t exist.