By Bushra Begum
Beauty is much like clay. You can mold it into anything depending on your preference. People around the world have created their own definitions of beauty. Cultural perspectives might differ but despite differences, it is safe to say that we are pressured by our surroundings to define beauty for ourselves.
As an 18-year-old woman starting college, I challenged my peers’ definition of beauty by embracing the hijab.
My headscarf took the world by storm — my world. My friends tamed their thoughts replacing conversation with silence and awkwardness. I wondered if they still found me beautiful as the tight cloth covered every inch of my hair.
I recalled mornings prior to my decision where I would spend hours heating my hair with a straightener from Rite Aid. If it burned out, I would buy another one. I needed to enter my small, all girls, Catholic high school in The Bronx, with confidence. And of course good hair equals confidence. Shoving my hair in a scarf was never even a thought, let alone an option.
It took a large gathering of Muslims in New York to compel me that I could be beautiful even with a headscarf on. On July 19, 2014, I attended a protest on 42nd street to show support for mourning Palestinians. The Israel and Gaza conflict had resulted in the death of about 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis. I sat in my pink bedroom watching videos of devastated children that became orphans instantly as airstrikes threatened their lives. Fathers and mothers fasted patiently during the month of Ramadan as death welcomed itself in their homes. The people of Palestine belong to my faith which made the connection intimate. Participating in the protest was the only way I could defend Palestinians from the comfort of my protected nation.
At the protest, I was in awe by the countless people who belonged to my faith — especially the women that wore headscarves. I was mesmerized by everyone’s ability to make a fashion statement despite covering their hair. To show respect, I placed a scarf on my head as well. Later that week, I decided to join my fellow Muslim sisters to embrace a precious part of my identity.
College came in less than a month. As I stood in front of the mirror, deliberating the first day of school, I asked myself, were normal people even exposed to Muslim looking people? Now that I started wearing hijab, was I supposed to act differently or act more Muslim than I already am? Should I filter my words and refrain from cursing? Was I supposed to stay quiet and be modest like a Bengali bride on her wedding day?
As these questions hovered over my mind, I avoided one particular question. Did I still consider myself beautiful with my body covered from head to toe? I use to equate beauty with hair and the curves of body parts. Now, I had neither.
To my surprise, students at City College value individuality without prejudice. I was able to make Muslim and non-Muslim friends without feeling any less intact with my faith. I was astounded to find out about the Muslim Student Association on campus and learn that the Wingate basement serves as a prayer space. Needless to say, City College made my transition much easier due to the large Muslim population on campus. It taught me that faith doesn’t blind you. It inspires you, when used in the right way: to be successful in every aspect of your life whether it’s academics, social, or even physical.
Gradually, my description of beauty changed from physical appearance to more of an abstract idea. I found beauty in the way I spoke to people, my personality and my smile. Most importantly, I found beauty in my faith. I found beauty in my willingness to follow through even when the media dragged Islam through dirt. I found beauty in forgiving others as the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) forgave his neighbor for throwing stones at him. My religion taught me that beauty is not temporary but correlated to eternity. Thus, I started perfecting my soul instead of perfecting my appearance.
The word oppression is not easy on the tongue; it can act as a pinch of alcohol ruining a glass of milk. Often times, people who choose not to understand Muslim women find comfort in using “oppressed” to describe us. Ironically, choice is the backbone for my decision to wear headscarf. In my definition, oppression is allowing mainstream media to dictate beauty based on a woman’s wardrobe. Because of such expectation, non-Muslim women are compelled to dress accordingly to the latest fashion trends. Islam, on the other hand, doesn’t have high expectations on a woman’s choice of clothing, except that they dress modestly. Covering up takes away attention from the body while focusing on a woman’s mind, personality, and abilities to make a stance.