When I was a child, I loved makeup. I thought it was an expression of womanhood, of adulthood, of being, as children say, “grown up.” Then, as a teenager, I lost all interest. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I adored femininity and expressions thereof. But makeup seemed fake to me. It struck me as a mask, an attempt to meet other people’s expectations. Always the nonconformist, I didn’t want to bother. Eventually, though, I did try it and liked it. But it still seemed like a lot of work, and so I didn’t wear every day.
Bras, of course, were very important from a certain age. I needed to wear them, because to not do so would’ve been immodest by my own and by society’s standards. It didn’t occur to me to cover my chest’s shape by other means. The playbook for modern women says to either wear a bra and thereby be normal, or wear a bra and modest clothing and thus be modest, frumpy, old-fashioned, or whatever term they’re using these days, or to not wear a bra and thus be edgy and sexy – or maybe even a stereotypical bra burning feminist.
Removing body hair is also a ubiquitous practice for women. To look professional, classy, modern, sexy, or even merely normal, is to be, among many other things, clean-shaven, with the sole exclusion of the eyebrows and scalp hair.
While none of the things mentioned above are inherently bad or oppressive practices, they are all imposed on women. And this imposition is indeed oppressive. To be a woman is a performance, and to deviate from the script is to deviate from womanhood itself. Women have had little say in writing that script, yet by and large we still follow it. We must be beautiful, but not distracting. Sexy, but not slutty. We must wear makeup as a matter of course, but not too much or we’re being dishonest. We must be thin, but also curvy. We must dress nicely, but without making other women jealous of us. Women Of Color have even more rules to follow. They have to look “exotic”, but not too different from the white standard. Hair must be straightened and made flowing, thick eyebrows trimmed, unibrows and body and facial hair shaved, waxed, and plucked into palatable-to-white-people submission.
Sadly, while men, especially white men, overall have been the rule makers, our fellow women too often are the enforcers. For some strange reason, even as we chafe at these impossible standards, we balk when other women don’t follow The Script. Women are the first to step on each other in order to climb the ladder. Heterosexual women brag to men that they’re different, special, real women who follow the rules and yet stand out just enough to catch the right man’s eye. “I’m not like her,” we are quick to clarify when we see a woman stepping out of line. The only room for being special is in being especially dutiful in our performance.
As I have grown into feminism and come to recognize the ways that the rulebooks for men and women are very different, I have simultaneously become more religious and have valued traditional Islamic modesty. I have long viewed the hijab as a way to opt out of society’s rules for women. Makeup has seemed less important. Nobody sees, and therefore no one cares, what I do or don’t do with my body hair, my bras or lack thereof, or my hair.
Sadly, hijab or no hijab, Muslim and other religious women have by no means managed to entirely escape the stage of the performance that is womanhood. Within many religious communities – this goes for pretty much every religion, to be clear – women are often expected to be meek, and men to “lead their families.” Women who want to pursue careers typically reserved for men, be child-free, be single long-term or marry “too early,” or who are (GASP!) queer, are suffocated because there is simply no room for such deviations from The Script.
It is clear that neither religious modesty nor secular dress are the solutions to this mass theatrical performance in which women are born, live, and die on stage, forced to memorize and perform their lines and parts as soon as they exit the womb. While I believe that Islams offers complete liberation to all women, I am admittedly biased. And frankly, a belief is worthless unless put into practice. The first step, I believe, is to throw down our scripts and stop performing. Refuse to conform, and refuse to police other women. Support and celebrate maverick women. Find the stage directors and playwrights, and expel them from your life. Rebel. Cover yourself from head to toe, or go topless. Whichever you choose, uncompromisingly support the women who choose otherwise. Refuse to compromise your soul for the comfort and satisfaction of others. Define your own womanhood, your own femininity, your own self.