Seeing photos of armed French police forcing a Muslim woman to remove her burkini at the beach on Wednesday reminded me of two groups of people who’ve taunted me for years: ignorant Westerners and conservative Muslims in the Middle East.
Both have problems with the way I dress.
The first group wants me to take off my long-sleeved shirt and hijab, and wear short-shorts, so I can be liberated from oppression. The second says I’m too westernized, urging me to cover up so I can become a “true” Muslim woman. They hold opposing views, but fundamentally have the same goal: to control my body.
I was a 12-year-old growing up in Chicago when I decided to wear a hijab. My family was completely against the idea, fearing that their only daughter would become a target for bullying. But I rebelled—and their fears became reality.
At school, bullies ripped off my hijab and teachers would single me out in front of classmates. On the streets, random strangers would make angry comments. “Take that off,” they’d say, while pointing disgustedly at my hijab. “You’re free here; you can take off your headgear.”
I’ll never forget what happened on July 4, 2005. I was walking to Buckingham Fountain in downtown Chicago to watch fireworks with my family, when a man yelled out the window of his car, “She has a bomb under her scarf!” Bystanders immediately ran away from me, scattering in different directions. That night, I cried myself to sleep. I couldn’t understand all the hatred and why everyone seemed to care so much about the way I dress.
Such vicious comments followed me out of the United States, too. At 21, I traveled to Europe for the first time to attend a screening in Amsterdam of #ChicagoGirl, a documentary about my efforts to help coordinate the Syrian Revolution using social media. After it ended, an audience member approached me and said, “You can’t be an activist fighting for freedom and wear that thing on your head.” His comment struck me. Despite having just watched a 70-minute film about the crisis in Syria, he was only fixated on my clothing choices.
But ignorant Westerners aren’t the only ones telling me how to dress. Throughout the Arab Spring, while I was participating in online activism, I received many messages from conservative Muslims in the Middle East who said I dressed inappropriately for a Muslim woman. They ranged from “your hijab is too colorful” and “your jacket is too short” to “your pants are too tight” and “You’ll burn in hell because I can see your body.”
The bullying became so extreme that my family members starting getting calls and messages from people who believed I should avoid wearing makeup and pants to be more modest. Conservative Muslims didn’t hesitate to criticize me for failing to dress in an Islamic way, forgetting that all three Abrahamic religions warn against judging others.
Every woman—including those who choose to wear burkinis—should have the freedom to dress however she wants without pressure from governments or society. After years of being targeted by bullies on both sides of the spectrum, I’ve learned to ignore hateful comments and dirty looks. My hope is that the Muslim women who wear burkinis this summer do the same.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."