Gender & Identity, Life

Don’t tell me I need to be more modest

I couldn’t wave, say hello to a male friend, or even look around the room without feeling like I was violating norms and evoking whispers.

A couple of years after I embraced Islam, and less than a year after I began wearing the hijab regularly, I arrived at the nonprofit agency where I was interning, wearing a long cardigan, business casual pants, and a black and white headscarf. A Muslim woman seeking services at the agency spoke to my colleague in animated Arabic, which the latter translated for me. Apparently, she had noticed that I was “American,” and showed her excitement by abruptly asking for my hand in marriage for her son.

Somehow masking my amusement, I managed a polite response.

It was only after the woman had left the office that my colleague and I laughed about the incident. Then, still laughing, my colleague said something that made me grateful I did not understand Arabic.

“She asked me to wish you well with your studies …” my colleague began. “And to tell you that you should really wear skirts to be more modest.”

I was dumbstruck. This everyday conversation with a client had progressed from a marriage proposal — from a family that knew nothing about me beyond my whiteness — to criticism of my workplace attire. Disheartened, I thought of the reflection process that guided me to begin wearing hijab ten months after my conversion. I thought of how hard I worked to overcome my extreme sensitivity to heat.

I had been proud of myself. But in a single moment, a total stranger who shared my faith tradition but held a different set of cultural views had deemed my choice not modest enough … not good enough.

Over the years, I’ve been continually discouraged by the judgment within the Muslim community, its frequent unwillingness to discuss “taboo” topics like depression and sex, and the way culture is used to propagate an exclusionary brand of Islam. The spirit of Islam at times seems lost. It leaves behind a tradition that is stale and void of humanity — not the vibrant Islam I know we can achieve by embracing our imperfections.

Just a year or two ago, I was sitting in the gym of a local mosque, attending a Friday night program with friends where a makeshift barrier of chairs and card tables separated the men from the women. Volunteers stacked chairs, and piled tables, and even hung a banner to cover holes and prevent men and women from recognizing each other’s existence in this shared space. Ironically, the barrier itself was more distracting than the people on the other side.

I couldn’t wave, say hello to a male friend, or even look around the room without feeling like I was violating norms and evoking whispers. It reminded me of conversations with Muslim girlfriends who narrated stories about being forbidden from interacting with male peers during their childhoods.

I’ve seen that Islamic values like modesty are often taken to such levels that they seem at odds with the ultimate purpose behind the actions. Grappling with a community that has no room for my beliefs and needs leaves me feeling discontent — and even a bit cynical.

Please — do not mistake my critique of fixation on details for a call to neglect attention to details. And I’m not at all condemning the cultural richness of the global Muslim community. But when Muslims spend more time worrying about whether a woman who plucks her eyebrows is going to burn in hellfire than they do teaching people how to enhance their character, I fear we have accepted a watered-down Islam that dilutes meaning. When Muslims spend more time planning extravagant weddings to maintain social status than they do discussing the significance of intimacy and partnership within marriage, I lose a sense of rapport with the community.

This spring, my friend hosted a local event that sought emotional healing within the larger Muslim community. Having felt isolated and disinterested in Islamic events recently, I felt rejuvenated by this evening of storytelling, artistic performances, and community sharing. I admit that as a social worker, writer, and musician, it naturally appealed to my senses. But the presence of raw and authentic emotion and acceptance of imperfection made me feel closer to my brothers and sisters in faith than ever before.

Beyond formal performances, audience members took the stage to share personal stories without judgment or attempts at advice from listeners. No topic was off-limits: We touched on mental health, substance use, family dynamics, racism, incarceration, and grief and loss. Large group exercises, including a community poem, celebrated our diversity while highlighting our commonalities at a human level. We spoke openly about what hurts us, brings us strength, and helps us define love.

For me, the spirit of Islam was restored that night, with a reminder that each of us fights battles and that our faith tradition transcends time, space, and cultural identity.

The sirens of the “haram police” were silent, and we shared the truth of pain and healing.

I have no desire to fuel debates on right versus wrong, halal versus haram, or liberal versus conservative. In the end, this black-and-white thinking only leads to us versus them. But whether it is transmitted through casual coffee shop chatter or through formal dialogue on media projects like the documentary Unmosqued, the message is clear: People long to feel and connect. To connect with themselves, the Creator, and the creation.

Disconnection can be internally and externally damaging, but the wounds are not always visible to the naked eye. My wounds, and the injuries of others, go unacknowledged when the Muslim community prioritizes trivial matters or fails to invest in programming that conveys Islam as a living, breathing tradition.

Lectures are beneficial, but they’re not the only opportunity for growth — especially when they leave so many relevant topics off the table and talk at the audience rather than talking to them. Making events like the one described above more mainstream would be a positive start, where self-expression and community support are fostered in a safe and culturally inclusive space. Where people can share their feelings and experiences without receiving backlash.

Everyone encounters ups and downs in faith along the way, and perhaps that is why Islam says the greatest jihad is the struggle of the self. But the community must promote gentleness instead of callousness, and flexibility instead of rigidity, abandoning punitive and narrow-minded practices. Muslims must strive together to be the best they can, without forgetting to provide support when people fall.

When words and actions are infused with the spirit of Islam, this is the moment that healing can begin.