As news concerning a continued decline in make up sales comes in, and women report they are taking to their foundation and lipstick less frequently, I’m reminded of my own intimate journey with cosmetics, and how this was shaped by my faith. The very journey which prompted me to start writing.
That first piece I wrote stemmed from what so many of us are familiar with, and what I call the rhetorical knot. That overwhelming feeling, a build-up of emotions that sits beneath your conscious, which can’t immediately find its shape in language. That if expressed, often comes out in a splutter of words, making up a string of incoherent, half-baked thoughts that only leave you feeling more frustrated then when you started.
Language is the closest we have to defining our realities, and often it seems like it’s not quite pliable or concrete enough to close the gap between what we feel and our ability to comprehend and express this. Often times the only thing that can oil the hinges of this emotional mutism is, paradoxically, to start writing. To work away at that feeling, hack at it, till you get to the core and slowly build up a jigsaw of words that best connects the intimate chamber of your feelings to the world at large. Providing you with the clarity to deal with what hasn’t yet found a material expression. This feeling is amplified for minority communities who are underrepresented in news, media and culture, for who there isn’t the language, symbols and repertoire to define our experiences.
The rhetorical knot in question sat stubbornly in my throat, and during my idle times of chores, supermarket queues or waits at the bus stop, I would often attempt to work away at it, to grapple with this engulfing cloud of feeling. But it wasn’t until I allowed myself the dedicated time and space – and paper – to define this phenomena that I was able to make sense of it.
It was a feeling that arose when I spent time with a new group of friends – some local Muslim women I felt particularly inspired by. While it has become mind-numbingly cliched to say, I saw a massive disconnect between this amazing group of local Muslim women I’d had the privilege of connecting with, and the shaping and reshaping of the Muslim woman in public imagination. The problem wasn’t so much that I felt people had misunderstood the Muslim woman, it was more so that the assumptions that underpinned that misunderstanding were also massively at fault and totally disingenuous.
These muslim women were doing things as believers, for the sake of Allāh. There was no male standard by which to define their actions and intentions either for or against. They weren’t reinforcing or defining themselves against patriarchy, they were worshippers of Allāh first and foremost, outside any gender hierarchy or structure. They didn’t fit the skateboard wielding, black belted paragons of corporate marketing virtue – the ultimate standard of humanity for Muslim women. And this made them more deserving of accolade and praise in my opinion. While Muslim women appeared to be running away from the ball and chains of some of the stereotypes that had come to define them, I was sat there trying to revaluate them, and had started to see the purpose in what was being widely denigrated by the majority opinion outside the Muslim community and increasingly from within.
I had just begun my journey of wearing Hijaab and had recently had a child, and eventually decided that make up wasn’t part of my Hijaab journey as a Muslim woman. I wanted to reassess these choices for Muslims – for whom they were seen as fitting an outmoded stereotype, precisely because they were seen to be done outside of what’s perceived as personal agency alone. I fell into the comfortable, well-worn pattern of writing about how the Hijaab, and my rescinding of make up, was actually a liberation from beauty standards. And naturally I wrote from the perspective of someone who valued secular notions of liberty, and the determiners for doing so – will, reason, values that shape public discourse, and a morality defined by that majority. The words to frame these principles from the majority perspective eventually came, but I found it really difficult to find the words, shared symbols and rhetoric to say it was worth doing for the sake of Allāh alone. There didn’t seem to be the linguistic tools or rhetorical framework to write accurately, upliftingly and positively about how much we can get for doing things for the sake of He who there is no doubt.
And while online discourse amongst the Muslim community has slowly changed in support of faith-based values – and young Muslims now have an appetite for Islamic tiktok videos and religiously uplifting soundbites – there is still a deep distaste for what is often considered non-‘spiritual’ religious commitment or orthodoxy. When there isn’t a nasheed playing in the background, it doesn’t always immediately administer a dopamine high; when it refers to something that doesn’t fit a kind of orientalised glamour. When it’s a slog. And the fact that the women persevered with this unglorified task , that didn’t foreground the self, maintaining razor sharp focus and intention was beautiful to me, in and of itself. It may not have made a Nike ad, but that wasn’t the point. The temperance, perseverance and total eschewal of popular and faddish opinion in doing what they deemed right, in the face of derision, was to me entirely inspiring.
And just like all topics which we might class within the ‘orthodox’ bracket of Islamic opinion, much of these talking points invite defensiveness and misunderstanding, instead of being accepted as part of the ecosystem of legitimate debate and discourse. They are often misconstrued as projection.
Despite many women from within and outside the Muslim community more recently coming to the defence of the notion of Hijaab as a form of obedience to Allāh, as a Hijaab wearing woman, I felt there were certain unspoken rules policing public expression that meant I was limited in what I wrote and said. An advocacy of religious principles coming from more secular adjacent figures is more reassuring to an audience which has internalised religious thought, and Islamic thinking in particular, as anti-intellectual. We are more likely to accept views from people we deem to be sensible, logical, untainted by the irrationality of religion. A religious person advocating for religion was just…too much religion for mainstream audiences. They rate too high on the spectrum of ‘Muslimness’ in which there is a positive correlation between muslimness and otherness. Too much ‘Muslimness’ is never a good thing.
I’d started out wanting to write about my experience giving up make up for the sake of Allāh, as it is to this day one of the things I have gained most from internally, that has furnished me spiritually and given me more fortitude, strength, self-respect and confidence, over and above many of the other changes I’ve made in my life. The contentment I have achieved from that one change I’ve made in my life helps me to approach every other decision I’ve made with the confidence of a believer, al-hamdulillāh.
But the words I was looking for to describe this wouldn’t find themselves on the page, aside from the fear of coming across self righteous and sanctimonious, it also felt like I was advocating against something intrinsically female, like I was woman-hating. I felt there was a subdiscourse that equated femininity at the time with a perceived autonomy that was interlinked with the beauty industry and cosmetic culture. There was no rhetorical stream I could tap into that would convey what I felt about it effectively. What I ended up writing and publishing didn’t do justice to the religious dimension of my experience forgoing makeup.
And today, when I return to the subject of my notion of womanhood as a Muslim, I’m constantly reminded of the limitations of language. How difficult it is to speak about some of the illuminating qualities of being a woman in Islam without inviting the linguistic and cultural baggage of a Ms Trunchball style stern, grey and priggish Puritanism, that is ironically defined by a male narrative and a male gaze which is not being catered to. The nuance of being a Muslim woman in Islam is lost in the sullied waters of a language frequently employed by a system which obfuscates it.
With this new market decline on make-up, I find myself returning to the topic of how my faith in particular led me to abstain from cosmetics. While the reasons for women doing so may be many and varied, what better reason to do anything than for the sake of Allāh, and what better motivation to try to write about.
Make up was once my second skin, an extension of who I was and how I felt comfortable presenting myself to the world. Despite this, cosmetics had always been inconsistent with my own understanding and reading of hijaab for myself. For me, hijaab was a verb and not a noun. It was a decision to cover and act more humbly, to not draw attention to myself, to see myself as a worshipper of Allah first and foremost, to overcome my vanity for myself and to be considerate of my position in society.
My most recent decision to wear hijaab, as a 28 year old, was premeditated, and as the day to adopt it drew closer, I’d decided to compensate for the head covering by starting to wear a bright lip. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it, I felt the need to recompense for what I had evidently thought was quite a draconian, obstinately anti-male symbol, with what I considered a girlish and whimsical one. I had accepted my understanding of hijaab as one that didn’t work to foreground beauty, yet I wasn’t ready to forsake a very public expression of ‘beauty’. My decision to cover for the sake of Allah, and principally due to ‘modesty’, came hand in hand with a consideration of how this would appear to others and through a form of my own vanity. And the incongruity of how I had approached this was matched in the entirety of my hijab journey at the time. A careful attempt to control and reconfigure my appearance to accommodate my hijab spoke more of my insecurity, weakness and submission to the court of public opinion, than it did my commitment to my faith and my desire for self-understanding. The dishonesty inherent in my approach to Hijaab wasn’t something I was willing to acknowledge, and so this act of covering came with a kind of dishonesty to myself, and an apparent bid to circumvent the purpose of hijaab as I saw it; to want to appear attractive while ostensibly saying I understood the need from a moral and social perspective to rise above that. What felt most uncomfortable about this was how my relationship with Allāh sat amongst my own self-delusions.
Although I never went ahead with the lip, I continued to paint on my winged eyeliner each morning after adopting the hijaab. I would ignore the quieting voice in my head that told me it felt contradictory. I would ignore it as I left the house with the intention of covering myself to gain humility and ward off attraction, while accentuating my features in a bid to redress the perceived visual austerity of hijab. I wanted to mark myself out as different to ‘that’ kind of Muslim. My connection to make up had become stubbornly visceral – my desire to blend into the visual landscape of feminine identity at the time was alarmingly deep rooted and obstinate. As a 28 year old my fear of looking ‘ugly’ had seemingly and totally unknowingly reached manic proportions. And there was a sea of feeling that sat beneath my conscious that I wasn’t willing to acknowledge or pay attention to. It sat uncomfortably beneath my chest as I looked wilfully in the opposite direction.
Make up, for me, was a nod to the world that I was still visually compliant, invested in the same optic order as everyone else, where women were empowered by looking and feeling attractive according to the ideals of male desire. Particularly as the message hijab sent to the world was that I was already different, other, willing to sacrifice my claim to beauty and attractiveness – in addition, taking make up out of the equation meant a total eschewal of the beauty ideal that so many of us use as a common currency.
It wasn’t just the fear of appearing less attractive, it was also the message I was sending out to the world that I didn’t care if I was or not. The thought of adopting Hijaab and giving up all attempts to appear ‘beautiful’ to me meant sending a clear and stark signal that I no longer wanted to be part of a thriving visual economy, and forgoing a lot of social capital as result. It was a lot heavier and a lot deeper than just make up. My vanity was hurt at the thought of rejecting a claim to want to be ‘beautiful’, and that extended beyond my looks and seemed to be saying something about my very nature – my capacity to have a personality, sense of humour and to be liked and socially acknowledged. There was something deeply uncool, and soberingingly unwelcome to others about that endeavour to do ‘good’ and a search for a higher purpose at the expense of the material.
Although I’d had the fortune, up until that point, to emerge unscathed from Mean Girl culture, I knew implicitly and subconsciously that a visual admission of this nature – to disregard my appearance or any claim to superficialness – meant I would be jettisoned from many social opportunities, groups and settings. I was ready to submit to Allāh but seemingly not so ready to be considered socially redundant. Although my reasoning for giving up make up was religiously driven and, honestly speaking, done with the intention to repel male attention alone, it was the female response that dominated much of my thinking.
Eventually, this slow-burning realisation came to me; that I had carefully camouflaged my incessant need for outside approval inside my desire to start covering and seek Allāh’s approval. Grappling with how seeking this validation, and the vanity it brought out in me in particular, felt wrong from an Islamic standpoint, was one of the toughest admissions I’d come to. I was stubbornly avoiding the truth that my own personal attachment to make up was due to vanity and that this vanity might be inconsistent with my understanding of my faith. Facing this reality was painful and I’d dragged my proverbial heels in the ground to avoid coming to it.
What I’ve always loved about Islam is the notion of intention. It is your intention that renders a deed fruitful. And your intentions sit invisible to the world, known only to yourself and Allah. This unseen force which guides all our actions can become entirely imperceptible if we continue to ignore the feelings, emotions and desires that lie beneath it. If we persist in wilfully looking in the opposite direction, we can feed and encourage our latent and subconscious will that, as social animals, is almost always entirely shaped by social pressures. Islam forces you to approach every action with humility and sincerity, for the sake of Allah. This begins with interrogating our motivators. It forces us into a self-awareness and understanding that makes it impossible to act in a thoughtless or capricious manner. The implications of this are profound. You can lie to the world, but you can’t lie to yourself and Allāh. And so, Islam cultivates us from the first seed of intention, it brings The All-Mighty into every conversation you will ever have with yourself, however primal. It requires an intimate and personal excavation; a careful endeavour of self-consciousness, and a quest for self-improvement. And it leaves no stone left unturned in that quest.
I was forced to examine the impulse behind marrying my decision to cover with one to appear more palpable to the world. And once I sized up to the face behind my decision to wear makeup, I reluctantly decided it wasn’t something I could continue to employ.
In a capitalist value system, our notion of morality mimics our economics, we are psychologically wired to treat morality like a dwindling currency. We view our goodness as a finite resource which we dish out in rations; ‘I’ve done my good deed for the day’. My reading of Islam encouraged me to invert this attitude that had migrated into our faith practice, to view my perceptions of goodness as an ever increasing pool which grew as I utilised it. I was trying to outgrow the midframe that I gained ‘haram points’ for committing a good deed, and starting to see Islam outside of a deficit model which framed Islamic principles as strange and lacking, a tock box exercise at the expense of my happiness. I began to see them as beautiful and bountiful, replete with wisdom beyond our comprehension.
The world felt decidedly different the day I chose to foreground that dissenting small voice and I did what has gotten me through many a frustrating situation and cried and vowed never to leave the house. A friend who had been privy to my decision met me in central London, and solemnly told me she was only wearing concealer in solidarity. A mehrem I had spoken to about it consoled me by reassuring me that my bare face may be pleasing to Allah in the same way the breath of the fasting were. Neither the admission that wearing concealer only was a test, nor that my face was analogous to bad breath, made the decision feel easier. And really, I felt very alone in this endeavour to please Allah – one that I feel many people didn’t understand, or felt defensive in response to – and at the time that felt like a really bad thing.
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to my face, and my body to acclimatise to the chill I felt in certain situations, having disclaimed any stake in beauty as a social construct. Socially, we are trained to scrutinise women’s faces more, and I had to retrain myself to appreciate a face that was a little less muted, softened and blended into my social environment. Beauty as a concept is like any other currency system, it is determined by an often unseen politics. Although we may not be consciously aware of it, the symbols that dictate our understanding of the world and how it is ordered are ingrained in us and shape our thinking. ‘Beauty’ as it is constructed and pedalled by corporate giants is used to attribute power and create hierarchy in society. In opting out of this hierarchy and power system, I became accustomed to the fact that in many situations, amongst Muslim women in particular, I was looked past or beyond, as though I wasn’t present or holding up the space in the room the same way. Despite the many times I had people tell me they wore make up for themselves and not others, I was often questioned by those very people on why I may have bothered to wear it at home, alone, when nobody could see it.
These instances actually helped me to glean a different kind of satisfaction, appreciate not being part of this quest to perennially appear affable, desirable or conforming to others. I slowly began to gain a quiet confidence that only Allah can grant someone that goes against the grain for His sake. After almost three decades of disliking my appearance I began to befriend it, and actually devalue the importance of my face and exterior, as it existed entirely outside of the pomp and pretence of a beauty pageant which I was never going to win anyway. Beauty ideals are designed by nature to be entirely unobtainable and breed a sense of dissatisfaction and disunity amongst women. In forgoing any right to this beauty, I had also relinquished claim to the restless agitation and dissatisfaction that is socially embedded into many of us as females. I started to attract friends who wouldn’t dismiss me on superficial basis. And I had begun to shift my focus to other things, to gain satisfaction, self-worth and happiness from different facets of my being. The time, energy and emotional investment I’ve saved in giving my appearance such careful and meticulous consideration has genuinely been spent on things that I feel have increased my sense of value and self-worth far more, and that have given me a more fulfilling and lasting sense of happiness.
At times it felt like an intense detox, and to this day I still consider myself a kind of veteran, as someone who has come out the other side, – with battle scars and visible eyebags – kind of ok. I don’t often feel the need to appeal to others visually anymore. Having strengthened my inner voice, and starved the monster of my vanity, I find myself more in-tune with my inner workings, and my moral muscle memory is much greater as a result. I am often more encouraged to push myself, to do better and expect more of myself. Having divested in beauty, stepped back from the social order, and the commonality that binds many of us I have found a much better version of myself and the ability to connect with people on much more wholesome terms. I also like that I get to keep a little part of me to myself, that I don’t share with the world, and that makes it all the more valuable to me. Beauty to me is no longer a form of public declaration that I need affirmation from the world on, it’s a private understanding for myself.
To borrow from a very unfortunate metaphor already cited here, giving up make up feels similar to fasting, in that it feels like a privilege that only Islam would afford me. Islam gives us the unique offer of always finding the best version of ourselves – to avoid that moral pitfall, to think better of others and to thoroughly and honestly question and expect the most of ourselves. It gives us the tools, and the permission, to look inside ourselves and interrogate those invisible impulses that guide our being, eradicate the bad and build a foundation of good in the most earnest, honest and sincerest of ways. Helping to continually refine and hold ourselves to account. It is so different to any other belief system or value base or set of principles, in that it gives us the opportunity to do good from the first thought of inception to the last act of a deed. It nurtures and refines us thoroughly from the inside out.
In that tradition, I don’t regret my decision to retire my eyeliner, whether I’m able to express it adequately, or not, or whether it’s socially or morally intelligible to people or not, whether people feel I’m projecting or not. I feel wholly fulfilled and satisfied with the idea of pleasing Allāh alone in my understanding of hijab, irrespective of whether our social lexicon accommodates this – and that endeavour for me is enough, al-hamdulillāh.