Mind Over Modesty By Anna El Samad

Takeover at Parliament Steps. The Social Studio, Outer Urban Projects, Youthworx. Photograph: Keelan O’Hehir

Mind Over Modesty

By Anna El Samad


There is a notion that to be a Muslim woman “is to be watched but rarely seen” (Ali 2017). Muslim women simultaneously experience hyper-visibility and erasure. We live under the spotlight of insidious societal criticism of the ways we choose to practise our religion, whilst also being excluded from the narrative. So, when The Social Studio asked me to write about modesty, I was in two minds. While I could understand the inherent importance of speaking on my own terms and being seen through my own words, I was also aware of how diverse and multifaceted “modesty” is. Modesty is not exclusively an Islamic practice. It has been a part of many cultures, traversed centuries, continents and traditions. Today the modesty movement comprises of women from the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic faith traditions, as well as secular proponents. While the definition of modesty varies it is generally seen as a form of dress in which “women wear less revealing clothes, especially in a way that satisfies their spiritual and stylistic requirements for reasons of faith, religion or personal preference” (Hahner and Vadar 2012). For many women modesty goes beyond dress and can be a spiritual practice: how one behaves, how they choose to spend their wealth and how they interact with the world. While I wear the hijab as an indicator of modesty, to me, my hijab helps express who I am. It isn’t necessarily about covering up but rather revealing the real me. I feel audacious and unapologetic with my clothing choices as a modest dresser. But false modesty is a quality I experience in other regards; in the way I feel compelled as a female, for example, to moderate my behaviour and to conceal and subdue my intelligence. As Muslim women are too often asked to talk about their bodies, and the way they dress, I am choosing to shift the discussion in this essay from my dress, which I will talk about briefly now, to more of a focus on my mind. In particular, I’m interested in the way women – generally, not just Muslim women – are expected to perform humility, and a false modesty, about their intelligence. This is something that I have had to unlearn and address in order to accept myself as I am.


Miriam Cooke, a Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University, states that “the Muslim woman is both a noun and an adjective that refers to an imposed identification the individual may or may not choose for herself”. I made the decision very early on that I would be the one choosing. I had long ago come to terms with the fact that I did not fit in. I was a visible Muslim, whose practice of hijab constantly made me stand out. I saw my choice to dress modestly, to identify with my faith as a way of being seen. I wanted people to know I was Muslim. I wasn’t trying to hide. I knew inherently that my difference contributed to the spaces I entered. It made them more interesting. When I first began volunteering in art galleries I entered knowing that the way I looked, the way I dressed, my personal history and understanding of the world allowed me to have a unique view of things. People have a hard time imagining that we, Muslim women, have the audacity to choose how to dress beyond the line drawn for us by society.


I was keenly aware that my outfit choices further intensified my visibility. When I was in my early 20s, I had what I like to call a colour awakening. For reasons I still don’t understand, I became viscerally affected and obsessed with colour. I sometimes think that if you could peer inside my brain you would find what looks like a packet of Skittles. Naturally, my love of colour translated to my outfit choices. I became fascinated with matching my hijab to my eyeliner to my shoes to my phone case. Finding different shades of purples, greens or pinks and seeing what colour combinations I could come up with. People would often say that they remembered me from my outfits. My choice to dress modestly meant that I desired to find unique ways to do so.


Wearing a hijab meant that I was always aware of my religious identity, how I belonged and how I was being viewed by others. Challenging the ways in which society saw me and how I dressed was a daily occurrence. I had become a pro at moving beyond identity fixations and reductive assumptions when it came to my hijab. Instead, my need to conceal myself manifested in other ways. While I was confident and unapologetic being a visible Muslim, I began to notice how my intelligence and love of learning was something I felt compelled to hide. It is this aspect of a woman’s identity, the way women are expected to perform a kind of intelligence-humility, that I wanted to explore.


So, recently, I came out to my friends as a ‘dumb bitch’. I had grown tired of the relentless overthinking, my constant need to be reading, listening to a podcast or researching something new. I could no longer sustain the capitalistic need to constantly be working and improving myself. I found that my relentless hunt for new information was taking its toll on my mental health. I wanted to be free, calm, vibey if you will. In the article, “Why Are So Many Women Calling Themselves ‘Dumb Bitches’?” (2020), commentator Magdalene Taylor describes a social media-fuelled desire among young women to self-identify with the term. Taylor explains some women see it as a means to playfully reclaim a term that carries stigma, subverting  misogynistic notions that pressure young women to downplay their intelligence and avoid participating in ‘unfeminine’ activities in order to not intimidate men. Finally, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I too no longer wanted to engage in critical conversation, or focus on intellectual pursuits. My whole life, my intelligence had been underestimated: people were surprised I could speak English, surprised I could articulate my thoughts, surprised at how widely I read. I felt as though I was being punished by society for being too curious. The more I learnt the more I felt as though I was being stigmatised.


But despite my best efforts, trying to identify as a dumb bitch did not reflect who I was. I am not unintelligent. I have two Masters degrees (which I still hate telling people about). Yet for as long as I can remember I had been explicitly told through conversations with men – both Muslim and non-Muslim – and made passively aware through societal conditioning, that a smart woman was doomed. That my role was to be seen, consumable and most importantly quiet. This fate was etched into the concerned faces of people who warned me not to pursue a PhD, as I would be “too intimidating”. It had been revealed to me in the countless books I had consumed. bell hooks, the eminent feminist scholar, had noted this same sentiment that has beleaguered women historically in her book Communion: The Female Search for Love (2002) where she outlined that “young girls often feel strong, courageous, highly creative, and powerful until they begin to receive undermining sexist messages that encourage them to conform to conventional notions of femininity. To conform they have to give up power.”


I began to think about where the need to hide my intelligence came from, and why two decades after hooks had written those words, they still held so many truths. If I was at ease with being visibly Muslim, why was my intelligence and love of learning something I was so desperate to be modest about? Who does humility actually serve?


Just as it can be difficult to strike a balance between self-expression and modesty in fashion, it can be as difficult to know when to exercise modesty when it comes to my academic achievements and intelligence. I’d grown so tired of trying to prove that I could exceed your expectations of me – why couldn’t I just be mediocre? But with maturity, we begin to realise that self-contentment lies outside of what we wear or how many degrees we acquire. In the same way my physical appearance is not a moral object, intelligence does not make you a good person. And it dawned on me that the pursuit of intelligence and knowledge within a vacuum did not in fact fulfil me; I could be intelligent without having to constantly prove it.


I still haven’t given up on my need to focus on intelligence but just as I have come to terms with my hijab, I now see my thirst for knowledge as a way to understand myself and the world around me rather than as a thing which I need to acquire in order to give myself value in society. What I know now is that I am inherently valuable as I am, regardless of how I choose to dress or how many books I consume. We all are.





Cooke, M 2008, “Deploying the ‘Muslimwoman’ roundtable discussion religion, gender and the Muslimwoman.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 24, no. 1, pp.91-119.

hooks, b

2002, Communion: The Female Search for Love, William Morrow Paperbacks, New York

Hahner, L & Vard, S 2012, ‘Modesty and Feminisms: Conversations on Aesthetics and Resistance Leslie’,  Feminist Formations, vol. 24, no.3, pp. 22-42.

Ali, S 2017,  ‘To be Muslim is to be watched but rarely seen’, Varsity <https://www.varsity.co.uk/features/13768>

Taylor, M 2020, ‘Why Are So Many Women Calling Themselves ‘Dumb Bitches’, Melmagazine < https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/why-are-so-many-women-calling-themselves-dumb-bitches>