When my daughter was 3 years old, she added a matching neck scarf and bangles to the outfit I’d picked out for her. I was surprised not by the fact that she added something to the outfit, but by the fact that it actually looked good. It was then that I recognized her interest in fashion. She had an aesthetic awareness I don’t think I had at that age. Now she is 5 and not much has changed. She’s still altering outfits to make fashion statements, and she tells me regularly, “I’m a fashion girl.” I’m okay with that, her being a fashion girl, but I shudder at the possibilities of what that could mean.
I know what’s promoted as fashion. I know what’s considered fashionable, particularly for women and girls. That concerns me because I see the twinkle in her eyes when she sees the short skirts and tight everything on TV. It’s not that she wants to wear revealing clothes (at least I don’t think she does). It’s that she wants to do what’s popular, accepted, liked. She wants to present herself in a way that is comparable to those who are cast as cool. As a Muslim mom, that’s a scary thought, but still I won’t force modesty on her. That tactic has a horrible track record.
Truth be told, I’d be as forceful as possible if I thought it would work, if I thought its affects would be anything more than temporary, but I know better. Modesty is not transferable. I can’t shovel it onto her as if she were some empty void. She’s her own person, and as such she has to develop her own relationship with modesty. If my methods include nothing but rules and restriction, modesty will become a hindrance, a burden. It will be something she begrudgingly embraces and quickly discards the second she gets $20 and a ride to the mall to pick out her first tank top and short set.
I’d hate for my physical presence to be the only reason she chooses to cover her body. What about when she’s out of my sight? What about when I’m not there to inspect and approve? I knew plenty of people growing up whose parents had no idea what they were wearing outside of their supervision. I refuse to be the naïve, disillusioned mom who thinks, “Not my daughter.” Meanwhile, she’s off in 9th grade English class wearing something that looks like it came from the Nicki Minaj collection.
Like most other things in life, modesty is a choice. So everything I do is part of an effort to help her want to make that choice. And I say that as a women who does not (and does) cover her hair. Yeah… my story is a little complicated (and probably needs its own blog post), but suffice it to say I don’t see modesty in strict, all-or-nothing terms. I recognize that there are levels and gradations, because while I don’t always cover my hair, I also don’t make the 50-foot trek to my mailbox without throwing on a jacket if need be.
But this isn’t about me. It’s about my growing 5-year-old and her future clothing choices. My hope is that she will genuinely prefer modest clothes, so I talk to her (and my son too) about how we can use our clothing to send particular messages about ourselves. And though our clothing does not guarantee other people will receive us the way we intend, it is a valiant effort in communicating how we want to be received.
I know she has years left until she will start to take on a womanly shape, but I hope to instill now the notion that her purpose extends much further than her body. Her confidence does not have to be a function of the number of comments she earns while walking down a street. She does not have to be reduced to a set of chest, waist and hip measurements. I want her to know it is okay to resist the temptation of sexy in search of a bigger power that can’t be manipulated or contained. I tell her, be modest in your appearance, my love, but be bold in your thinking.
All this, I say without saying it. I haven’t used these words just yet, but they inform our casual conversation and the energy I present to her. Not even when she’s older do I plan to take a dictatorial stance. In sha Allah, I won’t focus on the nitpicky particulars of how she should dress and how disgraceful she’d be if she chose to dress in another way. Instead, I’ll present to her a pleasant alternative to whatever the world’s offering up. Allah is too merciful for me to portray Him in any other way.
Editor’s Note: Nadirah Angail is a family therapist turned blogger from Kansas City, Mo. In 2006, she began working as a therapist with a wide variety of families and couples who suffered from issues ranging from depression and drug addiction to infidelity and marital discord. In 2009, she had her first child and decided to (temporarily) leave the professional world to focus on motherhood and writing. She has self-published two books and enjoys writing about relationships, family, parenting, and her particular perspective as a Black American Muslim woman. Learn more at nadirahangail.com andstrugglinghijabi.tumblr.com or @Nadirah_Angail. The views expressed here are her own.