By Leah Vernon
When you nope your way out of stifling expectations of others to live life on your own terms, you find freedom to be your full, authentic self. Leah Vernon was often told she was too fat, too Black, too Muslim, too slutty, too angry. She broke free from the naysaying and found her calling as a plus-size Hijabi model, social media influencer, public speaker, and freelance writer. In this selection from her debut memoir, Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim, she tells us about her identity battle with her hijab.
The identity battle with my hijab continued well into adulthood. As I started to come to terms with it, that it was in fact my choice to wear it or not, others’ disdain for it mounted.
I was hyperaware of my surroundings when I wore it, especially around white folks—they were the ones doing the most when it came to assaults and verbal attacks. I was lucky that I didn’t live in the south where bigots gave zero fucks about putting their hands on you if they thought in their little minds that you were Muslim. Although I was Black, ancestors straight from slavery, I was still visibly Muslim. The more “Islamic” I dressed, the more people would side-eye me. I’ve had people in waiting rooms get up from their seats and move away. I’ve had people stare me down, make me feel like nothing. I’ve had comments made about my hijab, whether or not I was concealing a bomb underneath it. One day, I was asked if I was wearing all black to work because of Osama bin Laden’s death.
I once met this girl from the Middle East my freshman year of college. “I didn’t know you were Muslim,” I said and gave her the Islamic greeting.
“Yeah, it’s okay.” She shrugged. “My sister and I don’t wear it anymore, you know, cuz 9/11.”
I nodded. I got it, but then again, I didn’t. I wasn’t taking off my hijab. Not for other people’s ignorance. If I was going to take it off, it’d be because I wanted to. Not because I was pressured by society’s ill view of Muslims.
People wear their hijabs (or don’t) for many different reasons, but the majority of people, including Becky at the restaurant, believe that it is a universal sign of oppression. The media has made it so that close-minded individuals have been brainwashed to think that when they see a Muslim woman covering her hair and body, it automatically equates with her being forced to by her evil Arabic-speaking father. They have all these notions of you being bald, forced into an arranged marriage, being subservient to a man, and that you absolutely, unequivocally, couldn’t be a feminist. All hell would break loose if a hijabi was a feminist.
Deciding, really deciding, to unapologetically wear my hijab for me has been the most freeing and rebellious and feminist thing I could possibly do.
I didn’t wear my hijab for others, so they could think that I was a good, practicing Muslim. Nah. I did it because it was me, my crown, my shield. It told people that I was strong in my belief, whether I said it or not. I was proud and loud of who I was. And because I was so “out there” with it, it made individuals (like Becky) very, very uncomfortable. They just couldn’t figure out how a girl like me continued to defy odds, being different, being openly true, while getting beat down daily for being a minority Muslim.
I went through a phase when the pressures of being a “poster girl” Muslim got to me. I was visibly hijabi, fat, and Black. I thought that I had something to prove. I wanted acceptance and validation from everyone. Fat girls were seen a certain way, so I needed to dispel those stereotypes. Black girls from Detroit were seen a certain way, so I needed to rise above and be totally non-ghetto, code-switch the hell out of my vocabulary. And Muslims were seen as homophobic extremists. So I had to be cool, and out-of-the-box, and most of all, nonthreatening.
All of that identity shit weighed on me. With all that bending and reshaping, I began to lose a sense of self. I didn’t have anyone to let me know that it was perfectly fine to be who the fuck I wanted to be. No one told me that I didn’t owe shit to anyone. I didn’t have to be a poster child, spokesperson, or representative for any one of the minority groups that I belonged to. I could be me. Unapologetically.
As Muslims, we are taught to be perfect. In front of our peers, in the media, at work, at that nearby coffee shop. We are taught that we are being watched by not only God, but others, and that we need to be amazing individuals who aren’t touched by mental illness, sexual abuse, or homosexuality. We’ve created these ridiculous ideologies that we can only fit nicely into these frames.
I stopped caring about unattainable expectations. I stopped striving for a level of perfection that I was never going to bask in. And every day, I worked on finding me. Not allowing stereotypes to define me.
For one thing, I knew I was Muslim. Wasn’t really sure what kind of Muslim I was, but I was Muslim. I knew I was probably always going to be fat. And I couldn’t change that I was Black, and I wasn’t going to start bleaching and looking like the new Lil’ Kim. So, I swam in the greatness of what those individual things meant to me. They meant originality, they meant power, they meant hope.
Before the internet, real-life trolls, aka haters, would shame me. My earliest memory was at the mosque for Friday prayer. When a Muslim makes salat, it is a sacred time, a quiet time; one must not break concentration and one must not talk or touch the person who makes salat. When I knelt down to put my head to the prayer rug, someone, some-fuckin-body, thought that my outfit was obviously not up to prayer standards and proceeded to grab the bottom hem of my shirt and yank it down over my lower back and butt. As you can only imagine, all concentration was lost, and my link to our creator was broken as anger grew around my soul like vines. I wanted to break my prayer and be like, “Which one of y’all touched me?”
Muslims don’t show their skin! I imagined one of the old heads saying, once I found out who the culprit was. Needless to say, I never found out who inadvertently policed my body, even during something as sacred as prayer.
My Muslim girl indecencies only grew from there.
I started to wear short sleeves. Was scolded for that. I wore pants instead of skirts. Was scolded for that. I wore sundresses instead of an abaya. Was scolded for that.
Muslim men made me feel the most uncomfortable in my own skin. They’d secretly call me names like “slut” and “whore” and “bitch,” because a girl who dressed the way she wanted couldn’t have been good news. The interesting thing was that many of them would’ve slept with me (and a few tried), yet I was all the bad things in the holy book and labeled as a “hoejabi.”
I first heard the term “hoejabi” when I was a teenager. A hoejabi wore red lipstick, and with her hijab rocked tight jeans with rips in them exposing her thigh meat. She partied just as hard and went on dates with non-Muslim men. She cussed and did as she pleased. All secretly, of course. A lot of us Muslim women live double lives out of fear of the term, being deemed a hoejabi. Being outed in the community and ostracized for doing the same as men.
I used to be one of those women. Delving into the hoejabi lifestyle, yet checking over my shoulder for brothers in the community in the same damn club waiting to uncover a Muslim sister doing the same wrong as them. One time I was at the club with two of my Muslim girlfriends. It was New Year’s Eve. Neither of them wore their scarves, and as for me, I had the most un-Islamic dress on ever. My boobs were out, as well my legs and arms. I gave zero fucks. I just wanted to see what it was like to not be all covered up. In the crowd, one of my friends suddenly pointed, and I ducked when I saw who it was.
“Girl! That’s ole dude from the mosque.” I grabbed her wrist, trying to pull her into the other direction. “We can’t go over there. I don’t have any clothes on!”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s whatever.”
“Fuck,” I said under my breath, as I followed behind.
I crossed my arms over my chest trying to maintain some form of modesty, and barely made eye contact as they gave hugs and Islamic greetings.
One of them had alcohol in his hand. “So, what are y’all sisters doing at the club with no scarfs on?”
“What are you doing here in the same club with a drink in your hand?” I cocked my head to the side.
He laughed uncomfortably.
“I’m out,” I said, squeezing back into the crowd. At that moment, I knew he was going to go back to the community and tattle on us.
Not only are Islamic communities policing and playing into this one-size-fits-all hijabi stereotype, but the media is as well. now, folks are confused as to what a real Muslim woman looks like. We’ve turned the common hijabi into a one-dimensional caricature. And, once again, anyone else who doesn’t fit into that mold is quickly discredited, and if we don’t shut up, we get trolled and dismissed.
Look around you. The rise of the Instagram hijabi blogger has swept the internet for the last decade. She is usually a size four, her aesthetic is pastels; either she wears her hijab wrapped traditionally or, if she’s a little edgy, she may even wear a loosely tied turban that she claims is so cutting-edge, when Africans have been wearing turbans for hundreds of years. She’s either a pale Middle Easterner or white-passing, with a hubby with an amazing beard that he obviously conditions weekly cuz like, wow, it’s incredibly shiny. He makes corny cameos in her YouTube videos. She has someone take photos of her making salat in a very New York chic way. Can beat her face, travels the world, expenses paid. And bills? What’s a bill? Owns a fancy Bengal cat named Sahar. Usually a virgin, even though she has two kids, because Muslim women definitely don’t have sex and are just impregnated by sheer will and the divinity of God.
If you look at all the diversity and inclusion campaigns meant to fight against Islamophobia or from companies wanting to jump on them Muslim millennial dollars, you will see the cookie-cutter Muslimah. Tell me, where is the lie here?
As a fat, Black Muslim who definitely doesn’t wear pastels and may or may not cuss like someone’s disgruntled uncle, I am overlooked. My voice unheard. My stories discredited. and my faith constantly questioned. Muslims as a whole are fighting today for equality and proper representation in the media and within non-Muslim communities. Funny how they seem to forget the in-betweenies, the dark Muslim, the alternative Muslims, and Muslims who are queer. How do you fight for justice for one and not for all?
About the Author
Leah Vernon is a plus-size Hijabi model, social media influencer, public speaker, and freelance writer. She’s been featured by Buzzfeed, Yahoo, CBC, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Seventeen, and the New York Times, and she’s worked with brands including Adidas, Lululemon, and Universal Standard. She speaks at universities and organizations across the country on topics of intersectional feminism, race, religion and spirituality, cultural sensitivity, social media, and branding. She grew up in Detroit but currently resides in New York City. Connect with her on Instagram (@Lvernon2000) and on her website (Leahvernon.com).