Come as you are

Since 2012, I have dedicated my passion and time to a grassroots organization in Calgary, Alberta called the New Muslim Circle which provides support and a sense of community to new Muslims and seekers. Recently, a dear friend joined our weekly gatherings; my happiness to see her interest in our group was blunted by confusion when she approached me one day, worried that her choice of clothing wouldn’t be “appropriate” for a “Muslim” gathering and that she would be judged for her personal style choices.
“Do you think I can wear a knee-length skirt with tights to Thursday Circle?” she asked anxiously.

Every Thursday New Muslim Circle facilitates group discussions in a safe space at the University of Calgary. Our conversations touch on everything from challenges surrounding conversion to maintaining and nurturing a connection to God. The key descriptive here is safe. Yet here was my friend afraid of the judgmental glances she might invite at the meeting. And she was not alone in her trepidation; I’ve had similar inquiries from other new female attendees who don’t wear a headscarf, for example, and are concerned about the need to dress a certain way to attend on Thursdays.

As Muslim women, we seem to have unconsciously developed split personalities when it comes to interactions, and particularly dress, in Muslim and (I hate this word) non-Muslim settings. That many of us feel pressured to modify our behavior and attire depending on the event, organization, audience, level of segregation, and perceived safeness of the space because we are afraid of being scrutinized or looked down upon, is disconcerting. This is not only eliminates identity and authenticity all in the name of fitting in, but is also extremely unhealthy – emotionally, mentally and physically.

We spend an enormous amount of time fretting about whether or not our skirt is too short, our pants too tight, our shirt too fitted, our makeup too heavy or our hair too exposed. Our brothers, of course, do not face this issue. We even have memes of pearls protected by oysters and lollipops covered by wrappers devoted to us! As a community, we are steadily destroying the psyche of both our young and new sisters when we give them the message that what they wear is more important than who they are.

It is a glaring reminder of how deeply women have internalized these messages when we see them afraid to come to a Muslim gathering altogether, unless they dress a certain way. This is not Islam. As Imam Zaid Shakir says: “Come as you are to Islam as it is.” In other words, you are an imperfect, unique soul, as is every human being, but Islam is for all of humanity. God does not demand perfection of you; it is people who demand that we appear as one monolithic bunch, at least on the outside.

The New Muslim Circle is a safe space. We welcome people from all walks of life, at all stages of their spiritual evolution because this is what the Prophet Muhammad did. I always remind attendees that we are not a mosque, so there is no dress code. We are here to provide support and information, not to tell attendees what to do, who to socialize with and certainly not what to wear.

We want people to come as they are –whether they pray the five daily prayers or not, whether they have embraced Islam or not, and whether they are in skinny jeans or abayas, – to Islam as it is. Period. When you meet people where they are at, instead of where you think they should be, you bring them closer to Allah. This is Islam.
Erin Van Overloop is an organizer with the New Muslim Circle and spends her remaining time working as an environmental consultant, painting and traveling internationally. She lives in Calgary with her husband.

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