Tasneem Iqbal is five foot tall, and has a love/ hate relationship with that. She has been a vegetarian for almost four years. Most of her go-to beauty products are animal cruelty free. She loves long walks on the beach at sunset and she loves her dog Nikko Nut (Right) more than Ryan Gosling.
Alwaysm: Tell me about a time you had a negative thought about your appearance.
Tasneem Ibqal: “I started developing really early. Like, really early. I must have been like ten or eleven when I started having to wear bras and stuff, and I hated it. It almost felt like a punishment. My clothes wouldn’t fit me right. I was a child, and I was wearing teenage clothing. I guess that was my first negative experience.”
Alwaysm: How did you respond to that at the time?
Tasneem: “Well... I was a bit of a tomboy, so I stuck on sports bras and strapped my chest down. I guess after a while I started embracing it, but that’s how I dealt with it at first. Wearing looser fitting clothing, and things that didn’t reveal too much of me. That was my response.”
So, you were uncomfortable with growing into a woman.
“Yeah, basically. I was raised by a single father and it was awkward.”
Yeah. Tell me about that. Can you tell me where that insecurity came from? And the feelings that made you want to cover yourself?
“I was taught that if a man looked at me, it was my fault because of the way I was dressed. It didn’t necessarily come from my father, but I interpreted it that way. As a young girl, I was blaming myself for the actions of others. As an eleven year old, and being more fully developed, people would stare at me and it was awkward. Instead of giving hugs to my old friends, I was expected to only shake hands. Because, I had a chest. I was a woman and this is what women do. Mentally, it gave me a sort of stigma. I was a woman, and I didn’t think it was fair. I didn’t think it was fun.”
So you didn’t like the restrictions put on you from a pretty young age. Actually, I had a similar experience. How did that affect your general fashion sense? Women especially are expected to ‘look nice’. Fashion is a big thing for women. How did not having the freedom to wear what you chose to look pretty, or look nice affect your life?
“I was always a chubby teenager. When I started wearing more conservative clothing I started wondering, ‘What’s the point? Why would I want to make my hair look pretty?’ This was me at eleven, though. I was pretty young. That mentality changed when I hit like, thirteen. But at eleven I just thought, ‘What’s the point?’ I was in soccer but I didn’t really exercise. The only point to being a girl was to cover up and protect yourself so there was no point in trying anything. I was into boy bands at that age and I loved to paint my nails, but I never really did much because it was a very religious household. I just tried to stay modest and didn’t get into fashion, really.”
How did growing up in that environment affect your own self-confidence, and the way that you viewed yourself?
“I was unsure of myself for the longest time. I felt like a pretty insecure teenager, and it affected my teen years that way. The way I dressed and the way I felt about being a women, I was very insecure about it. It felt like I got the short end of the stick. I remember going to mosque, for example, and other girls wore hijabs and modest clothing and they wore it fashionably. These girls looked gorgeous in them. They were rocking their scarves, they were rocking their clothing and here I was with some odd clothing choices. These looked ill-fitting and just not well kept. Confidence wise, I had pretty low confidence, low self-esteem...being chubby and not dressing properly, and not looking like the other girls.”
Do you think maybe the expectation of modesty and having to cover up yourself played a role in the low confidence?
“It did, for me. For the other girls my age who were at the same religious schools as me, attended the same mosque that I did, I guess they had a positive experience with embracing the scarf. These girls knew exactly how to wear it and I was honestly clueless. My mom is white, and my dad is Pakistani. I was just a confused kid. I was wasn’t fully accepted by the Muslim crowd, and I wasn’t fully accepted by the white crowd. So having to learn about my culture and embrace it, and try to be a “good girl”, I knew that some fashion was unacceptable. Like wearing short sleeves. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. For me I definitely internalized it negatively, whereas if I had a little more awareness I would have embraced it differently.”
Now having been through this, what have you learned to really like about yourself? And how have you moved past all of this?
“So now, I love everything about me. I think that everything about me is what makes me, me. In high school I became friends with these two girls I went to mosque with. They were the sweetest girls. They both were in track and cross country. They were so in shape, and told me, ‘You know if you just eat right and love your body, and love you for yourself everything will change. You just have to have confidence in your own decisions, and trust yourself.’ It was literally that tiny, small conversation that really changed it. I woke up the next morning and I was like, “Oh my gosh. It’s literally what I put in my body that makes me feel like crap. It’s literally my diet that needs to change and maybe the chemicals in my brain will change, and that will change the way I feel and how I look. It turned out, that’s exactly what needed to be done. It just took me a while to figure it out. After highschool I started doing yoga and eating healthy. It really did change everything.”
Awesome. It’s funny how one little comment from someone can actually change your life sometimes. I feel like there are a lot of women who have come from the same ‘modesty’ background. What would you say to women, or even young ladies, who are still feeling like it’s their responsibility to make sure nobody looks at them inappropriately?
“Well, for the expectation part, I feel like you need to have a conversation with yourself and figure out what you personally value. I understand that as a child living in your parents household you’re going to have to obey their rules. But you should reflect on why they are asking you to cover up. It should come from within. If you feel like you want to cover up, then by all means. But it has to come from within. If you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons, you need to speak to your parents about it. Tell them, ‘You know, I appreciate you guys trying to protect me…..’ There’s also a line, though. Unfortunately we live in a man’s society. You can’t exactly walk around in a bikini every single day, even though that’d be awesome, you’re going to have some people looking at you. It’s unfortunate, sickening, and upsetting. Expose your body how you want to, but within reason I guess. There are always limits to everything. When people ask you to cover up they aren’t like, ‘Here. Put this sheet over your head. Cover your whole body. Put two eye holes in the front.’ When people say wear modest clothing they’re saying, ‘Don’t wear scandalous clothing. Or see-through clothing.’”
For me it’s more of a self-respect thing. If I go out and wear a bikini to Walmart, that doesn’t show that I care about myself very much. And sometimes people might look at you, not even in a sexual way, they might just be like, “What is this person doing?”
“Yeah. I think the way that you dress is like the first conversation you have with somebody. If you can’t take yourself seriously, then why would anybody else take you seriously?”
Yeah, and I think there’s really no set modestly rules. Who’s to say what is modest, and what isn’t. The point is the heart behind it. If you’re dressing a certain way so that you will get attention from men, it’s just different. On the subject of modesty, you said you grew up in a primarily Muslim household.
So, tell me about that as far as modesty goes.
“Growing up in a Muslim household, culture kind of goes hand in hand with religion. So, basically because my dad is Pakistani, it’s kind of like the Liberals in the modesty world. So, my dad enrolled me in an Islamic private school to help introduce me to the religion, not just the culture. It was obvious who was from Indonesia and who was Palestinian or Jordanian, and who was Pakistani. It was very obvious. You could tell by modesty, even. It was just interesting seeing all of that. What was the question?”
Umm… the question was………Do you like donuts?
“That was not the question.”
“I go nuts for donuts.”
Tell me about living in a society that’s not primarily Muslim, in America, how that affected you.
“It was always kind of different for us. People always know, it’s kind of shouted. It’s always kind of an ‘us versus them’ scenario. Muslims definitely stand out, and they become subjugated, especially after 9/11 that it became really scary. I used to think that I would be a target for wearing a scarf. We used to have fire drills for the Mosques in case somebody came and attacked the mosque. There were a ton of Muslim men and women wearing the exact same things, so we felt in danger. Part of that time, it was quite nice. People would ask questions. They wouldn’t be scared of us. I wouldn’t be scared. It’s kind of funny, though, how fast things changed.”
Yeah. Did that play a factor in your decision whether or not to wear a scarf?
“I grew up half Italian, and my mom was never religious. My parents were divorced so I would spend so much time with her, and holidays with her. My dad was primarily my caregiver. I never wore a scarf except to school. It was part of the uniform. I didn’t wear one until the fourth grade, where it became part of the uniform. They started training you early there. In kindergarten, first, second, and third grade it was optional. But the minute you hit fourth grade, it is required. And it’s not fun being forced to wear something. It just isn’t. I understand uniforms, yes. But I don’t believe you should force anyone to wear something they don’t want to wear. And I never wanted to wear the headscarf. I only wore it to mosque, sunday school, sounds like I wore it all the time, but no. I took if off when I got home, I took it off when I got in the car even. I think the hijab, that’s what it’s called by the way, is a beautiful thing to wear. It is beautiful. If it comes from the heart, that what makes it more beautiful. That’s what makes it extraordinary. So if that’s how someone wants to show themselves, then that’s awesome.”
Yeah, but you feel like when you wore it, it wasn’t really an expression of who….
“Of who I was. No. With my friends all wearing it, and they wanted to wear it. They felt passionate about it, and that’s great. I don’t know why, but it never clicked with me. It just never was me. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be a good person to wear a hijab, and it doesn’t make you a bad person if you do. I really hate how that is. People think that if you don’t wear a scarf, you must be crazy, you must be loose, you must be not modest, which is not true. I want to be clear though. Wearing the hijab was never forced on me, it was just expected. My dad took me to my private school. He said, ‘This is what a hijab is. People of our religion wear it.’ That’s what the school taught us. ‘Isn’t it nice wearing one and following the religion? If you don’t want to, it’s cool too! God says you can’t be forced to do it, it has to come from you.’ What’s the point of wearing it if you’re not going to follow it? It’s not just a scarf, it’s a lifestyle. I didn’t really get it. My friends did and I didn’t. But I did it, unwillingly just so I could fit in. Just to hang out with them.”
*This interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity