Muslim women living in the West, and indeed all women, can find strength through their personal definition of beauty
Growing up a Muslim girl, you are taught to cover up.
From a young age, many girls are told to protect themselves from the unwanted gaze of boys and men around them. Out of devotion to their faith, these girls are encouraged to preserve their chastity and dress modestly. This can involve anything from wearing a headscarf (hijab) to avoiding mini skirts, with pressures varying between communities and cultures.
In the West, there is a growing pressure on young girls and women to sexualise their fashion, with hyper-sexualisation of women in media all around us. Beauty has been warped and extended to mean sexually attractive, and these ideas have infiltrated the minds of young women all over.
A Muslim woman living in the West is therefore stuck between two norms. Going through adolescence as a young woman is hard, with immense amounts of pressure building to conform to popular ideas of beauty, as well as exploring and expressing sexuality. If that wasn’t enough, a young Muslim woman also has the added stress of dealing with these pressures within the constraints of their religion.
Trying to be beautiful in a society in which beauty means sexy, whilst staying true to the moral codes you’ve been raised with, leads to a major conflict between two simultaneous norms for many women. The struggle is faced by a continuous effort to strike a balance between sexy and modest; wearing tights under dresses, tops under deep blouses and doing your best to show your contours, but never too much.
It only gets harder at university. Going away to study means no longer being subject to the same amount of pressure to be modest that you might have been at home. University opens up new freedoms and removes all the previous boundaries we may have lived within.
For a young Muslim, this can make things even more difficult when trying to dress modestly. It leaves women torn between trying even harder to be modest, relative to what they know, or using the freedom to express themselves however they like. You are forced to make a choice: be sexy, be modest, or awkwardly straddle between the two. Navigating between the two renders, many young women de-feminise, as they struggle to be beautiful behind more clothes than others.
This of course isn’t the full story. Being modest does not mean giving up beauty, nor does it mean that every Muslim woman has a problem with being modest. There are beautiful clothes easily available to everyone, and many women are happy with the balance they have found.
The crux of the problem is this: the idea of both modesty and sexuality are subjective and constantly changing. Being sexy today isn’t the same as what it meant ten years ago, or what it will mean 10 years from now. At the same time, modesty will also change relative to the norms of the society around you.
To all the women, in university or not, who are struggling to express themselves through their wardrobe or to feel beautiful in a hyper-sexualised world, just know that one idea of beauty isn’t the only one, nor is one idea of modesty.
Everyone’s journey through womanhood is unique, and everyone can feel beautiful through that journey, however they choose to define beauty.