My formal religious education began at the age of six, at the al-Mujahideen mosque in the Damansara suburb of Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. It continued for the next sixteen years until I graduated at 22 as an English Literature major from the International Islamic University Malaysia in Gombak. In the near-decade since, much of what I was taught about religion has fallen by the wayside, by processes of accidental and intentional unlearning. Yet a recurring theme from those lessons that has stuck with me, perhaps because it appealed to the self-obsession of my youth, was the oft-repeated connection between Islam and beauty.
I recall sitting in an Islamic Studies class on a hot and muggy afternoon in 2001 and being jolted out of my early teenage stupor by this phrase from my ustazah (female religious instructor), delivered with a smile that bordered on beatific: ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty.’ For some reason, I was struck and seized by those words and turned them over and over in my mind in the following minutes, hours, and days. In a vague sense, I understood that God’s beauty was something beyond my comprehension but His love for beauty, to me, had to be grounded in the tangible world that I lived in. And if God loves beauty, and if, as I then believed, I was not beautiful, what did that mean for me? It wasn’t that I thought God didn’t love me because I wasn’t conventionally beautiful. It’s that it was beginning to dawn on me that the beauty I was being told God valued still very much conformed to the parameters of human desire, and so no matter how sweet my words and good my deeds, as a fat person, my body would always betray me to other people through the ugliness of its excess.
In my second year of secondary school, I decided to don the hijab, but only during school hours, when I waded in a sea of teenage girls – my friends – who were growing and blooming in ways I envied with an ache. I strived to keep myself safe from the question: when will I be beautiful? In time I learned that I could practice modesty all I wanted but my body was constantly slipping out of bounds – I had too much hair, too much fat, too much need. My school already required us to wear a uniform, but the added layer of the stiff white triangle I put on every day granted me more of the anonymity I craved, or so I thought. Beneath it, nobody could see my unruly sideburns growing ever closer to my jawline, in my histrionic teenage mind giving me an unwelcome and somewhat threatening Dickensian aura. Or my sizeable bust, at 13 already a grotesque caricature of womanhood in my eyes and a source of frustration when shopping for clothes and shame in the privacy of my room as I contemplated my matronly figure with dismay.