This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
I was in sixth grade when I first joined a social media platform that required me to post a photo of myself. My friends—a group of Somali girls who went to my mosque—helped me plug in a Sony snapshot camera and upload a selfie to Myspace. I didn’t know how to crop photos at the time, so I decorated it with Blingee and Microsoft Paint.
The act was exciting but nerve-wracking. I wasn’t supposed to use Myspace, much less post photos of myself online—my religious mother was paranoid that someone we knew would somehow come across my page and consider me indecent.
After Islamic school every week, my friends and I would study geometry together and log into Myspace in between check-ins from our parents. We were intensely invested in the process of choosing profile pics, especially since, no matter how appropriate the photos were, if we ever got caught, we’d be forced to explain ourselves. So, we always went with the safest options, and we never even allowed the idea of posting pictures without hijabs to cross our minds.
As I migrated from Myspace to Facebook with the rest of my friends, I was extra careful. I curated my friend list with utmost discretion, and to family, I’d act like I didn’t use Facebook at all. When my friends and I would whisper about Facebook around our parents and aunts, we’d translate the name directly into Somali—waji (face), buug (book)—so their ears wouldn’t perk up at the mention of the site. None of us used our real names on our profiles, and it wasn’t until much later—when we started posting photos of ourselves—that anyone even knew who was who. Outside of my group of friends, no one was supposed to.
In 2015, Meredith Haggerty published one of the first pieces on the phenomenon that could be used to describe my early social media use: alt-accounts. For WNYC, she describes alt-accounts on Twitter as “private accounts with curated follower lists, where [users] felt comfortable speaking without self-censorship.” Essentially a private social media profile secondary to your public one, alt-accounts are used to maintain a sense of freedom and privacy in a hyper-public digital world.
By then, alt-accounts were old news to Muslim women like me. I had many friends, aunts, and cousins who wore hijabs who would set their Instagram profiles to private, write “WOMEN ONLY” in their bios, and post pictures with their hair down. The setting reminded me of familiar women-only gatherings and parties I would attend in my youth, in which women often remove their hijabs. Wedding receptions, for instance, are often segregated by gender. So, we’d arrive covered in hijabs and abayas, only to shed our outer layers and inhibitions, and then dance the night away without the leering gaze of men.
As black Muslim women, our bodies are heavily policed in public—both hypersexualized because of our blackness and desexualized because of our Muslim identity. But these selective, private spaces both online and offline allow us to simply exist—to show not only our bodies but our full personalities as well.
Growing up, there were certain topics—things that might make a girl seem indecent—that weren’t supposed to be brought up around me and that I wasn’t supposed to bring up. During Ramadan, for instance, when someone is menstruating, they aren’t supposed to fast, and even though that’s common knowledge, it was something that I subconsciously knew not to speak about in front of my brothers or dad. And while I spoke about my dating life to my friends, it was always nonexistent to my parents.
In these no-men and no-parent online havens, however, Muslim women can discuss their desires and, among friends, talk openly about “taboo” topics such as sex, penis sizes, positions, vibrators, and birth control options. None of these things are inherently bad or against Islam, but discussing them in public is often considered immodest and the kind of behavior any Muslim woman should avoid. Rather than a matter of religion, the stigma is ultimately a cultural and generational one—one that can only be escaped in private spaces or the corners of social media. Out of sight and out of mind.
By the time I was 15, I had less interest in Facebook. As I started using Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, I’d occasionally find myself making these secondary accounts when I wanted to rant about politics or post about my interest in experimenting with dating, sex, or drugs. I didn’t want to do it publicly, for fear that I’d be shunned by my parents and community for not being the perfect Muslim girl.
At the same time, though, I needed to exorcise all of my frustrations to my dashboard and timeline. I enjoyed writing long Tumblr posts about my crushes, my professors, my fallouts with my friends, and the times I got too high. Tumblr had a sense of anonymity to it; no one used their real names, and only my friends knew my username. Writing about these experiences semi-anonymously almost felt essential to adolescence, in the way diaries always have been.
Today, I understand that need for privacy more clearly through the lens of my identity. The way I present online may be the only way some people get a glimpse of my personality and life––including presumptuous strangers who read me as representative of all black Muslim women. And even as I try to veer away from that kind of constrained, respectable presentation of self in real life, I realize that I can’t control the way people perceive black women online; our simplest disagreements and discussions morph into headlines about outrage.
Meanwhile, the face I show to the internet is also the face many of my family members keep up with. Somalis have been displaced to various parts of the world due to civil war, and for over 20 years, we’ve spent a lot of our time online staying connected. Perhaps if we weren’t displaced and only connected via social media, we would be allowed to be more complex, flawed people.
I recognized at a young age how my identity makes me both invisible and hypervisible—simultaneously not fully seen and also incapable of blending into a sea of faces that inevitably don’t resemble my own. Today, I don’t have an alt-Instagram account, but I do occasionally create a private Twitter when I need a release. With something as seemingly silly as an alt-account, I can access the ability to dictate how I am read and by whom—and in that, find momentary freedom.