“Aaminah, tell me you’re not wearing that out,” my mother says, consternation writ large on her face.
I am going to a party with friends, or to a late night coffee outing with the girls, or to an indie film night at the local community theatre, or just to the library to read. We have had this conversation so many times, my mother and I – she with her hair covered, in her long-sleeved shirts that are never too fitted and her trousers that are never too skinny; me with my lips painted bright red, towering over my mother in my high-heeled boots. We will have this conversation many times more.
“What’s wrong with it?” I ask, deliberately feigning ignorance. “Don’t I look nice?”
I know what she means. She knows I know what she means. She sighs. “Of course you look nice,” she says. “But do your skirts have to be, you know…” she gestures at the hem of my skirt, far above mid-thigh – exactly where I like it.
“I love this skirt,” I say. I said it the last time I wore it, and the time before that. “What’s wrong with this skirt?”
“It’s not a skirt, it’s a belt,” my mother quips, but by this point, both of us are smiling a little. She knows I won’t change and I know she won’t stop trying to convince me to change. It’s all right. This is a part of our relationship – me with my miniskirts and heels and shirts that make my mother blush, my mother with her scarves and sensible clothing that is always elegant without showing very much of anything.
We do not have to be alike in order to love each other. We have always been different, my mother and I. She is warm, genuine, loving and has a smile and a kind word for everyone. I am cold and aloof and like to pretend that I don’t care about people nearly as much as I secretly do. Perhaps the reason we get along so well is that we balance each other out.
My mother’s sleeve has rolled up slightly, caught in her wristwatch. I feign shock and indignation. “You’re one to talk, Mummy!” I gasp, pointing at her exposed wrist. I hiss, “there are men about, Mummy! Cover yourself! Have a little shame, for heaven’s sakes!”
She laughs, and then I laugh, and then we hug each other tightly. I have to bend a little, as I am already taller than my mother on flat feet, let alone in the heels I insist on wearing so often. I rest my head against her shoulder and smile. I love my mother so very much, and her repeated scolding about my clothing and resigned sighs about my hem length are just reminders that she loves me too. I am her first baby – first to grow up, first to leave the nest. I’ll be married soon, almost ready to start a family of my own, but I know I’ll still be her first baby when I have grandchildren of my own and am clicking my tongue disapprovingly at the way they dress.
“Have fun,” my mother says, gently slipping out of my arms and stepping back. She cannot resist tugging down the hem of my skirt a little. I glare at her and she laughs again. It’s the warmest, happiest sound I have ever heard in my life. “Say hello to your friends for me.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” I ask her this every time I go anywhere. My friends all adore my mother. Everyone adores my mother. She’s the kind of person it’s impossible not to love at first sight. “You know the others won’t mind.” I lower my voice conspiratorially. “I’m pretty sure they like you more than they like me anyway, Mummy,” I confide in her. (This, too, I have said many, many times. We have had this conversation so many times before.)
She rolls her eyes at me. “Stop sucking up,” she says, but she cannot help but smile as she says it. “Go! I’m going to go and pray and then go to bed.”
I hug her one last time. We were separated for so long after my parents’ divorce that I sometimes feel like I’m making up for every hug we missed while we were apart. “I love you, Mummy,” I say, surreptitiously hiking my skirt back up. (She notices. She’s my mother. Of course she notices.)
“I love you too, my love,” she says, and I know she really means it. I know she will always mean it, no matter how often we quibble about my clothes or my feminism or that one time I got a little tipsy at a party. She has meant it since the day I was born. She meant it when I was an awkward, aloof teenager who didn’t know how to say it back. She meant it during the years after she divorced my father – meant it every time she said it to me and I refused to say it back because I was hurting too much. (She knows I wanted to say it but couldn’t. She understands. She’s my mother. Of course she understands.) She means it now.
We are not very much alike, my mother and I – she with her resigned sighs when I show up to visit her at work with fishnets under my plaid Hot Topic skirts; me with my rolled eyes every time she adjusts the necklines of my t-shirts because she judges them indecent. But this does not stop us from loving each other very much. It does not stop me from respecting her faith, or her from respecting mine. We know that deep down, we believe in the same Creator, even if we express that belief to the world in different ways. We know that we do not have to agree on everything in order to agree on that.
“Good night, Mummy,” I say as my phone buzzes to let me know my ride has arrived.
“Don’t bend over in that skirt,” she replies, and I want to roll my eyes at her but I end up smiling instead, because it’s such a very Mummy thing for her to say.
I have a fantastic night. My friends tell me they love my skirt. I think of my mother and smile.
Dedicated to my Mummy, who taught me almost everything I know both about what it is to be a Muslim and about what it is to be a feminist.