Like many others, I anxiously awaited the summer this year. Not only did it mean a much-needed break from grad school in Los Angeles, but it also meant that I would get to go home, reunite with friends and family, and escape L.A.'s "June gloom." The city's weird, chilly weather was a hot topic with my colleagues and classmates, all of us wishing for warmer days. After all, thanks to Megan Thee Stallion, Hot Girl Summer was gearing up, so naturally many people around me were bemoaning the fact that they couldn't pull out their cute shorts, rompers, and dresses just yet.
But, I couldn't relate. As a brown Muslim girl, my summer attire isn't very different from my fall or spring clothing. Sure, I wear fewer layers and favor short-sleeved tops and oversized jeans (I absolutely hate the feeling of snug jeans on my skin when it's sweltering outside), but abiding by an Islamic dress code means being modest at all times, regardless of temperature increases. Of course, it would be wrong to say that all Muslim girls dress in one, uniform way: Some of us wear hijab, others don't—a commonly discussed topic. Modesty can manifest in different ways depending on the person. The problem, however, is that most of the time it feels as though our dress isn't ruled by any Islamic law, but rather misogynistic and patriarchal standards.
In early July, when L.A. was finally heating up, journalist Sarah Khan posted a photo of herself wearing an orange dress. It was a cute, casual picture, similar to the many photos one would see scrolling through Instagram this time of year. Yet Khan received a ton of backlash for it. To be clear, this backlash took the form of mostly Muslim men blowing up her comments, some calling her a "whore" because the dress revealed cleavage.
Similarly, twitter user Sana Ali tweeted that she found a picture of herself on a Reddit subgroup entitled, "Muslim Sluts." The photo only shows Sana's face. She is wearing a hijab, a few strands of hairs poking out, this apparent infraction enough for her to gain access in the vile group. The description for the subreddit reads: "A place to post pictures of Muslim women, Hijabis, etc being total whores and going against their religion."
On this scale of "good Muslim girl" to "whore," I would probably be ranked somewhere in the middle, edging closer to "whore." I don't wear the hijab. Many of my clothes are tight, including bodysuits and fitted pants. A common feature in my closet are short sleeves, and I even have a few sleeveless shirts (never spaghetti straps, though). I wouldn't say my parents instilled a strict dress code for me growing up, but there are still limits I know cannot be crossed. I don't wear shorts (with the exception of PE class throughout middle and high school—thank you for understanding that one, mom and dad). If I wear dresses that are not the long maxi style, I pair them with leggings underneath. That means wearing leggings when a dress has a slight slit at the bottom as well. Even knee-length skirts are too short to be worn a la carte. My swimwear consists of a halal one-piece with the addition of long, swim-proof leggings. And a big, obvious nope is cleavage. Not even a little bit. I have had quite a few awkward encounters with relatives telling me to pull up my shirt's neckline over the years. I'm 24 years old and pursuing my master's degree, but these are still rules I am to uphold.
Even with these restrictions, I never really felt the clothing I wore to be limiting. After all, I don't wear the hijab which gives me more freedom in my attire (and saves me from a ton of discrimination). But I'd be lying if I said I didn't have moments at the store where I'd grab a cute romper or pair of denim shorts only to regretfully put it back, knowing I can't buy it. Or when I'm at the gym, and despite the AC blasting, I wish I could switch my skin-tight workout leggings (already considered scandalous attire for me) to breathable workout shorts. There was the time during undergrad I went to a rave on campus and was literally the only girl fully clothed. I hated my outfit that night. This urge to wear what some would deem "revealing" clothes always ramps up during the summertime. And yeah, some of it stems from a desire to be cute and trendy and to fit in. But mostly, it's because it's So. Damn. Hot.
This urge to wear what some would deem "revealing" clothes always ramps up during the summertime.
It's no surprise that temperatures rise in the summer (duh), but with global warming and a president who refuses to acknowledge its existence, our planet is only getting warmer and warmer. July 2019 has been recorded as the hottest month ever—the ultimate hot girl summer. As I read articles about the East Coast and Mid-West experiencing an intense heatwave, with temperatures rising past 100 degrees, I started realizing it's unreasonable to expect Muslim women (especially those who live in extremely hot countries) to consistently adorn hijabs and long layers in the heat.
In late June, Hawo Ibrahim tweeted, "Muslim hot girl summer is literally just being physically hot all summer, please i'm about to have a stroke someone call 911." A Muslim teenager from Tennessee, Ibrahim said the post, inspired by Megan Thee Stallion, was just a joke, something she and her cousins came up with while outside one summer day. Although Ibrahim wears an abaya, a loose robe-like garment, she said she doesn't mind dressing modestly in the heat, as, over time, she's found fabrics which are more breathable and appropriate for hot days.
Ibrahim is proud of wearing the hijab and abaya, despite the challenges that come with it. She acknowledges, however, that there is a toxicity in Muslim communities when it comes to judging others who don't cover up like her, including Muslims she knows who disapprove of congresswoman Ilhan Omar's outfits. "Some Muslim communities scrutinize the way women dress so much that it takes away from all the incredible things those women are doing. What does it matter that [Omar] sometimes wears her hijab as a turban and has her neck exposed?" Ibrahim said. "At the end of the day, [Islam] comes down to everyone's personal relationship with God and no one has the right to tell someone how they should dress."
Like Ibrahim, I also wasn't convinced that there was only one acceptable dress code for Muslim women. This past year, at 23, I started graduate school and subsequently moved away from home for the first time. Without the fear of a disapproving family and gossiping aunties to worry about, my newfound freedom allowed me to play around with my wardrobe. I took baby steps. One day it was a crop top (though I still chose to wear a chunky cardigan over it, unwilling to flaunt my midriff completely). Another time it was a T-shirt dress, still fairly appropriate; it went a little past my knees. I then stopped wearing leggings underneath my skirts and dresses. I can't describe just how freeing it felt not to have the constricting, sticky fabric latching onto my skin anymore. I was no longer paranoid if my neckline ran a little too low. I even wore a pair of ripped jeans—something also considered taboo.
Living alone also meant I could walk around my studio in a long T-shirt or a pair of shorts, something that wasn't an option back home. When I packed up my apartment to move back to San Jose for the summer, I realized these small, yet monumental alterations I made to my dress code would not be acceptable, around not only my parents but also relatives and family friends.
When it comes to dressing modestly, I have never felt that I needed to cover up my body for Allah.
This conflicting reality reminded me of an essay entitled, "What Will People Say?" in which writer Fariha Roisin depicts the fear and paranoia that is all too common in brown and South Asian families where happiness and self-expression are routinely sacrificed for a "good" reputation. Sometimes though, it's more than just worrying about other people's opinions. There is a general consensus that the Quran dictates how Muslim women are supposed to dress. And yes, there are passages in the text which discuss clothing, however the phrasing can be vague and open to analysis. These words have been interpreted by mostly only male Islamic scholars, adding a biased perspective. When it comes to dressing modestly, I have never felt that I needed to cover up my body for Allah. Instead, the discourse has always focused on not eliciting men's attention.
I was once accused of wanting to "show off" my body when I didn't wear a tank top underneath a dress, revealing the slightest bit of cleavage. Unfortunately, these types of conversations are normal for Muslim girls. As a preteen, even Ibrahim experienced this: "I was told to wear longer hijabs so grown men wouldn't be attracted to me. I was 12 and… being told that I would distract men in their 30s and 40s." To be fair, there is a verse in the Quran commanding men to "lower their gaze" at women, but these rules are rarely enforced, while women are being constantly patrolled on their clothing. This belief that as Muslim women we must do everything in our power to prevent men from looking at us, unfairly, places a huge burden on women, while men are off the hook.
This sexist ideology is not solely placed on Muslim women. When the #MeToo movement gained momentum, there were men and women alike, including Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik, who, rather than hold rapists and perpetrator's accountable for their reprehensible actions, blamed women (and their clothing) for their attacks. For those of us who observe Islam, it feels as if the length and size of our clothing become tantamount to our religiousness.
When Khan received all the hate from her dress, she tweeted, "Yes I'm a whore. Yes I'm Muslim. We exist." She clarified the comment was a joke, but her suggestion that Muslim women can wear immodest clothing while still practicing Islam is necessary. The idea that our attire negates our religious and spiritual beliefs is foolish and wrong. "These people who slide into my DMs telling me I'm not a Muslim know absolutely nothing about me," Khan said. "They assume that I don't know Islam which is wild because I'm from Dallas and we have the biggest Muslim community. Islam teaches you empathy and many people forget digest and practice it."
Empathy and compassion are values I've always loved about Islam. As a child, I remember my parents telling me our religion boils down to kindness and being a good person. This was supplemented by stories about our Prophet Muhammad helping animals and destitute people. It's also common for Muslims to address each other as either brother or sister, a way to cultivate bonds with other believers. Yet, the unfortunate reality is there is a callout culture within most Muslim communities. Compassion is tossed aside while Muslims condemn each other for not practicing Islam the "right way."
This type of doxing goes against so much of what Islam preaches, and can have serious negative side effects. After finding her photo on the Reddit group, Ali said her first instinct was to blame herself for the way she styled her hijab, before realizing she's not responsible for the misguided opinions of men. She acknowledges that not everyone would be able to handle the situation as well as she did. "Guidance is one thing, but to be degraded to 4000 followers, being called a whore can affect someone a lot, mentally," she said. "It ruins people's self-esteem and also makes them question their faith, which could lead to massive doubts [having] to do with identity and religion."
While men are the main culprits fostering this sense of shame in Muslim communities, the reality is that there are many Muslim women who perpetuate this hostility too. Khan said when she was in high school, other Muslim girls would snitch on her for wearing dresses and told her she was being haram. A recent twitter post by a Muslim woman condemned others for using the gym, saying, "Muslim women who go to mixed gyms want to be seen by men, idc argue with yourself about your reasoning." Rightfully so, there was a lot of outrage in the thread.
It feels so liberating to finally dress for myself and not others.
At first, I too felt a sense of shame when I started revealing more of myself. Being incubated in a culture where showing some calf is risqué makes it hard to uncover even the most mundane parts of one's body. That is until I realized that my clothing, or lack of it, didn't come between my connection with God. I still pray and recite surahs from the Quran before falling asleep or starting my car. As a film studies major, most of my research grapples with how Muslim communities are depicted on screen, so I'm literally always engaging with Islam. I've attended Muslim student association events on campus and continued having meaningful conversations about my faith. The fact that I stopped dressing as modestly as before didn't impact my beliefs at all. There are still some limits I prefer to observe with my wardrobe, but I'm also more comfortable and confident in the risks I've taken with fashion. It feels so liberating to finally dress for myself and not others.
Muslim women are not a monolith. When it comes to our clothing, some of us wear the hijab and prefer longer, more covered clothing. And some of us don't. Our clothing should not be dictated by men or be used as an indicator of our Muslimness. Rather, we should wear what makes us feel comfortable and good about ourselves. As Megan Thee Stallion said, being a hot girl means, "being unapologetically YOU, having fun, being confident, living YOUR truth." As the summer winds down, I'll be carrying those words with me.