I used to dread summer because I never knew what to wear. I never had anything to wear.
My mother was strict about making sure my clothing covered me. She tugged at tees that rode up my back, disapproved of sleeves too short. This stuck with me even when I was grown and lived alone and could, in theory, have worn whatever I wanted to. I have always loved fashion (indeed, my nickname at one time was simply, Fashion) and I have always loved to shop for clothes. But browsing through rails of light camisoles and soft cool dresses every spring, every summer, I felt stung that I could not wear any of these things because of my upbringing, my religion, my culture. I wish I could say it did not matter to me, I wish I could say I was above and beyond it, that I was less materialistic, more spiritual and obedient, but it did matter. It mattered greatly to me. I resented the rules, especially when my brothers got to lounge around in shorts all summer long.
Later I remember envying the lightness of the summer wardrobes of other women I used to see, breezy in sandals and floaty florals and bare legs even in the office. So pretty, I used to think. Not like me. I imagined people were looking at me, laughing at me, still in my sweaty thick jeans with half an exposed forearm the extent of my summer style. I disliked summer for the way it limited me. Summer did not suit me at all.
But it's different now. I don’t need to dress to work in an office anymore and in more recent years I’ve had fun buying clothes I love, curating a simple summer wardrobe of soft fabrics that keep me feeling light at this time of year. Though I don’t necessarily seek it out, the term “modest fashion” has become a keyword, a trend. There are more choices now for women and girls who wish to stay covered yet cool than there ever were when I was younger, when I desperately wanted to fit in.
Last summer I bought myself a pair of vintage denim shorts. My first shorts. Sweet in shade, like light forget-me-nots. They are soft, worn-in and slightly frayed.
It felt thrilling to purchase them, as though I was breaking the rules because, I suppose, I sort of was. It sounds absurd for I am a woman - an adult, a mother. I should be able to choose what I want to wear but it is hard to shake the way one is raised, especially when it comes from a place of belief. It is hard not to remember being scolded for wearing this or that. If ever a girl was described in our circle of family friends as “wearing sleeveless” it was meant as a slur. They meant: she was too modern, too independent, not modest or marriageable enough. “She wears sleeveless,” was something I knew I was not supposed to let people say about me.
There is a lot to unpick here, I imagine a therapist might say.
When I was a journalist, I wrote often about various subjects relating to various Muslim women and was often asked to comment by others on the hijab, the jilbab or the burqa because Muslim women were and still are so often reduced to the sum of what they wear by the press. I have written strongly and in national publications about why I don’t think any of these items of clothing should be banned, not because I have ever worn them but because I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else what they should or should not wear, nor judge them morally for it.
You should wear what you want to wear. It is that simple.
So I wear my shorts on those hot, hot London days when the heat is dry and the sunlight plays patterns through the trees, still only in the privacy of my home and garden. Somedays I feel my heart thump when I imagine what my mother might say (for the record, we get along well), or what those people I grew up with might say if they could see me - because when you grow up as a girl with Pakistani parents in England, it is always about what other people might say.
But that feeling quickly vanishes because I remember that I have choices and then I feel good. I remember that the clothes I wear, just like the clothes anyone else chooses to wear, do not make me immoral alone, no matter what the naysayers may think (the very same naysayers, I might, who forget that it is not their place to judge in anycase). I remember that I feel like me. Also, I don’t feel quite so hot and sticky. It is also that simple.
(So I wear my shorts in the garden. It is growing now. We water it together. We watch it grow.
To one side grows the honeysuckle, voluptuous and heavy. I had hoped it would twine along the trestle neatly and I had tried in vain to twist it this way and that into place but it still falls forward, uncomplying. Now I let them trail whichever way they like, their tendrils twisting like messy braids. I have learnt to let them follow their own ways.)