Under the dimmed lights of the wedding hall, bhangra music played loudly in sync to the rhythm of the dhol drums. My Muslim friends shook their hips on the center dance floor in the midst of a crowd of men, huddling their heads together in laughter and clapping along to the music.
I sat by myself at one of the empty tables bopping my high heels to the music, pretending that sitting alone for the second night in a row during a week of aunty-approved wedding festivities, didn’t bother me. I was dressed in a blue and magenta shalwar kameez. Neatly tied around my face, in sharp contrast to my friends, was a matching navy hijab.
That evening, my smile was my best accessory. It hid the dawning realization of my outsider-status as a hijabi in my Muslim community.
I was holding back tears.
I grew up in a small suburban town in upstate New York with a modest-size population of Muslims, the majority of whom were of Pakistani descent like me. This community was an isolated bubble, sheltered from people’s lived realities, on-going politics, and rampant Islamophobia. Having attended Islamic school from a young age, I was taught a black-and-white vision of Islam: boys are haram, hijab is obligatory, and meat must be zabihah or kosher.
The conservativeness of our community was only enhanced by my parents, who began every conversation on womanhood with the word “haram,” or “forbidden.” The word was pervasive in their vocabulary and – although God-forbid anyone says it aloud – subtly associated with sexuality.
Women singing in public was haram because of its so-called sexual allure. Women were forbidden from dancing in front of men because it was deemed sexually enticing. And for every strand of hair, a woman failed to hide behind a cloth was another day of punishment waiting in hellfire.
My entire existence was perceived and understood in relation to men.
While most would rebel under these stringent rules and ridiculous principles, I embraced it. My strong belief in God’s goodness was enough for me to see the beauty in what I believed was God’s command. We were taught that God wanted to protect women from the uncontrollable gaze of the opposite sex, who make up 50 percent of the population.
These rules were not oppressive, but liberating and cautionary.
During Ramadan in sixth grade, I walked through the front doors of school with a hijab covering my hair for the first time. Other than a few comments about my “do-rag,” my change in appearance went largely unrecognized by the student body. Ironically, the most ruthless comments came from outside school, from aunties in my Muslim community, the majority of whom did not wear the hijab at the time.
One aunty laughed, “She even wears the hijab in front of my son!” As if I thought I was a sexual muse for her son, rather than carrying out a religious mandate.
This was my first introduction to what I have since dubbed aunty culture: the innate need of aunties to voice unwarranted opinions and attempt to control the lives of everyone else in our mosque community.
The first time our community was exposed to the controversial idea was by Brother G, a trusted Islamic school teacher. Aunties and uncles came at him with knives and pitchforks ready to drive him out. There were threats of banning him from teaching (though he generously taught Quranic Arabic for free to high school students), letters of nasty words were exchanged (“third-world country” took on a whole new level of meaning) and board members demanded he explain his “extremist” textual methodology at an emergency town hall meeting.
The topic in question? Hijab.
Brother G concluded the hijab was never an obligation, but a remnant of a culture that gave birth to Islam. This kind of talk was unacceptable and it became the community’s sole mission to cast out all deviant voices.
Watching the unfolding drama revealed an entirely different facet of Islam to me just as I went off to college—one where people disagreed on the interpretation of the Quran. And so as I moved to Boston for school, I began to explore the multiple Islams through my Anthropology and journalism studies. Over a span of four years, my views changed and crumbled and my faith wavered in highs and lows.
Exiting the confines of my small town, I became frustrated with the hypersexualization of women’s body and hair. I detested the limitation of my mobility when men were present. I resented the discomfort of the cloth on my head, which never rested comfortably on my shoulders. I judged Muslim men who dared to utter the word hijab in my presence. I questioned the positioning of hijab in a continuum of gender and sexuality notions.
And I hated the constant feeling of being “other,” both inside and outside my Muslim community.
Aunties – my role models, my mothers, my friends – became the cultural agents by which contradictory depictions of femininity were enforced. One day dancing was classified as erotica, the next day it was a measure of my religious progressiveness or lack thereof. Flexibility was not an aunty-sanctioned option.
The mosque had become a space of hostility and othering. Here, it was impossible for me to not question gender-sexuality norms and the role of the hijab in my own marginalization.
None of my female Muslim friends wore this simple cloth that is now a contentious battleground for political, religious and economic ideologies.
They will never understand the burden of wearing your religious identity publicly, facing discrimination during countless job interviews, to overcome preconceived assumptions while conversing with a professor, or the fear of walking down a sidewalk after the Boston Marathon bombing.
Worse, they will never understand how it feels to be made invisible and under-prioritized by the women of their very own Muslim community.
I spent my youth desperately looking for someone to rise up and define a new normal among Muslim women—one that empowers relationships, emancipates the female body from a field of controversy, and embraces a spectrum of differences.
All these years later, I’m still looking.
So as I watched my Muslim friends dancing at the wedding from afar while I sat, decked out and alone, I never felt so distant from my faith, my Muslim community, and the larger American society.
It is a paralyzing realization.