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How my religion shaped my relationship with make-up

We talk to people from different faiths who use beauty to reconcile their relationship with god

As a Muslim boy, reaching for my mother’s make-up brush resulted in verbal scalding and a night of repenting for Allah’s mercy. Make-up on a boy, I was taught, was an unimaginable insult. Hence when I started drag at the age of 19, it felt like the ultimate transgression against my religion. It’s been a decade since meeting my queen alter-ego, and I’ve come to discover something quite surprising: that the process of applying make-up wasn’t a simple divorce from my religious heritage, but a subconscious way of holding on to it. 

The Muslim act of prayer – which you're encouraged to perform five times a day – is a deeply meditative one. Through poses and incantations, you attempt to fuse your soul with Allah, and it feels almost like an act of self-care. The precise movements and verses one undertakes to memorise for prayers offers a comforting structure. I used to find great peace in prayer, in setting aside moments where I could spiritually restore myself and take refuge from the world. This is something I get now only through make-up.

The two hours before a drag show are the most religious in my day – the solitude of the bulb-lit dressing room is a little like a shrine; the careful, rigorous process of constructing a new face is intensely ritualistic. Just as prayer used to reassure me of Allah’s unconditional love, painting my face in the way that I choose is an act of self-love. In many people’s minds, make-up and Islam are about as compatible as vegans and slaughterhouses. But there are many Muslims out there who turn to make-up as part of their religious expression. 

Hafsa Qureshi, 25, is a vocal Muslim bisexual who works for the Ministry for Justice. For Hafsa, make-up is an act of transgression – not against Islam, but in that name of Islam. She told me: “I'm often concerned about how Muslims are perceived in the public eye. For years now, I've drawn a heart on my face to show that I mean to spread love. It makes people smile, and people feel more at ease around me. I draw all sorts of patterns on my face and I love coming up with themes for my make-up." To her, make-up is a hobby, a creative outlet, an art form and a way to spread ideas. "It's not just for women," she adds, "it's not just to pretty ourselves up – it can be a powerful thing.”

In a sense, make-up can help undo people’s assumptions about religious people. I’ve definitely found this to be the case through drag. With the help of make-up and costume, I am able to construct an aesthetic image of being a Muslim that battles people’s cultural assumptions. Being assigned male at birth, I was forced to conform to models of masculinity in Islamic contexts and always felt dysphoric having to be perceived this way. In drag, however, I am able to represent how I perceive my Islamic identity through the make-up designs I construct and the fabrics I wear. 

Of course, there are Muslim people who choose not to wear make-up, perhaps because of religious chastity, or in political rejection against Western constructs of beauty. Hafsa’s use of make-up is a conscious act of defiance. “Muslim women are chastised for doing anything to seemingly ‘beautify’ our appearance. My make-up is the antithesis of that. When I’m not at work, I often wear ‘unnatural’ make-up. Like green lipstick, or red eyeshadow. I don’t strive to conform to conventional beauty standards. In the same vein, I am not a conventional Muslim. I am outspoken on LGBT+ issues. Make-up allows me to express that rebellion from stereotypes.”

While make-up can be utilised by people as a way to transgress how others understand their faith, it can help others to embody their religious roots. This is certainly the case for Raheem Mir, a male dancer from an inter-faith background, who dresses as the feminine deities of his religious cultures. Raheem practices a traditional dance called the Kathak, an ancient Hindu ritual used for story-telling about the deities. Raheem explains to me:

“When becoming a deity within Kathak dance, the adornment is a key aspect to personifying and the becoming. Whether it be the colouring of Krishna or the accessories of Shiva, one should be conscious of the key factors that determine and identify the deity posed." When representing Radha, Krishna's main love, Raheem tends to use more natural tones as he has always seen her as more of a natural beauty, with a simple eye and lip, and soft contouring. When depicting a male deity or even as a male-presenting character or deity for a piece, the eye make-up isn't necessarily a blended eyeshadow but more of a bold eye with thicker eyeliner, darker colours. Raheem might also use a heavier contour with a more iridescent highlight and not so much a golden shimmer. "This allows a heavier colouring and bronzing to show a more 'powerful or masculine' energy," he says.

"For myself, I feel connected to the deities through their visuals and once I begin to adorn myself and transform with the use of make-up, especially, it allows to me to connect and find a part of myself that lay dormant before; but now with a good highlight and cheekbone moment, it is awakened and takes over.”

For many queer people like Raheem, make-up is a tool that can allow you to access your heritage – and often a heritage that has rejected you. Rahim says that Kathak dance is as much about him accessing his religion as a queer person as it is for the audience: “it has allowed me to be an authentic portrayal of myself and to add another layer to my performance. One that may be susceptible to ‘attacks’ from others; however, the vulnerability allows me to connect deeper with the piece, in turn allowing the audience to connect with it on a deeper level and therefore, losing that sense of prejudice because I, in my opinion, do this quite successfully and still look fabulous!”

Personally, beauty has helped me to process my past, too. Due to the way I was taught Islam, I believed all forms of gender nonconformism to be a sin. The battle I had with my religious heritage led me to renounce my faith when I was discovering my sexuality as a teenager. Later in life, however, through re-reading the Quran and investigating the suppressed histories of my faith, I discovered many forms of gender transgressions in Islam.

Sufism is a beautifully mystical sect of the religion that has a lot of affinities with being queer. Instead of Allah being a hegemonic, totalising, singular force, every different Muslim has their own individual relationship with Allah, who can mean something different to each different person. Sufist prayer methods are wonderfully poetic, and even involve male Muslims wearing skirts and dancing to the sound of an Imam as a way to connect with Allah. When in drag and twirling around on stage, I feel like I’m embodying my Islamic cultural ancestors, similarly using feminine accoutrements to connect with a higher power, channelled through the collective spiritual energy of the audience.

For Ty Jeffries, who moonlights as Miss Hope Springs – a legendary cabaret drag musician who was brought up Catholic – make-up and costume is a way to replace faith, rather than go back to it. Following Christianity, Ty went on to follow Nichiren Shōshū Buddhism, committing to its two daily prayer sessions known as Gongyo. But now, Ty thinks: “my work has become my religion. I seem to have given up worldly pleasures for my work. It is a vocation for me and since first writing songs in my early teens I have given my life to it. Now, like so many practitioners of religion, I usually dress head to toe in black – apart from the festive season when I go for hellfire red – and instead of prayers I offer up songs and laughter to the gods."

In other words, the act of becoming Miss Hope Springs is a profound, spiritually transformative one. “I do actually feel she is possibly a disembodied entity that uses me as conduit. I often come off stage having done a 2-hour show and can remember very little of it. Maybe I’m like those Balinese dancers who become possessed by the spirit of dolls.” 

Make-up is so much more than an aesthetic tool to change what’s on the outside; for many people from religious backgrounds, it helps us access what’s on the inside. Whether it be embodying a heritage we’re in conflict or harmony with, transgressing people’s assumptions about our religious identities, or merely just an act of spiritual self-care, the power of make-up is to heal and transform.