In all modesty
Wearing the hijab doesn't mean you can't be fashionable. Laura Barton reports
Friday June 21, 2002The Guardian
After September 11, the burka leapt from obscurity to front-page news. The media portrayed it as an example of the oppression of women; pictures of Muslims looking downtrodden in these long, dour robes were everywhere. The burka was seized upon as a photogenic symbol of feared and mysterious forces threatening the western way of life. It was only when the fall of Kabul did not produce the expected public disrobing that the media were forced to probe a little more deeply into the complexities of the issue of Islam and women's clothing.
The hijab - headscarf - is far from being a universally hated garment. Indeed, at an age when the majority of teenage girls are merrily dyeing their hair fuchsia and confounding their parents with a steady stream of crop tops, miniskirts and nu-metal jiggery-pokery, many British Muslim girls are beginning to wear the scarf. Basma, 27, a teacher at Islamia girls' high school in north London, started wearing her scarf in her teens. "Wearing the scarf was my own personal little rebellion," she says. "I went to a Roman Catholic girls' school in Edinburgh, and I was the only Muslim there. It was eye-catching, you could say. My parents didn't tell me I had to wear it; it was something I chose to do. The headteacher at the time was extremely angry. At the school where I now work, the girls are very, very confident of what they want to be. Nine times out of 10, if they're wearing a headscarf it's because it's what they want to wear."
"The first time you wear the scarf, you feel nervous, and worry that everyone's looking at you," says Jamila, 21, a medical student. "I started wearing it at sixth form. I wasn't taking a step towards the establishment; I felt that I was becoming more comfortable with myself. For me, it's about identity: people don't look at you, but at what's inside. I feel more protected."
Most scarves come from holidays abroad to Muslim countries. Or Tie Rack. There is a vogue for designer scarves, embossed with labels such as CK or DKNY. The most important thing seems to be to colour-coordinate your scarf with your outfit. "I change my scarf every day," says Basma. "It just pins under the chin. If I'm wearing a casual outfit it'll be linen or cotton, but if I'm going to a wedding or something I'll choose silk or chiffon."
Fabak, 21, studies medicine with Jamila. Since September 11, she says, people have felt more comfortable asking her about her hijab. Before, they were worried about being politically correct. "I had the standard black hijab for years. People would ask, 'Do you wear black because in your religion you're always in mourning?' and I was like, 'No, it's because black suits me.' "
In the home, ideas of modesty are discarded. "A lot of things a girl will wear with her girlfriends might even be more radical than non-Muslims," says Basma. "But outside, there is a standard to be kept, and girls and their families are very aware of that. A girl has to be covered. And they need to avert their gaze. There's no point in being ultra-modest if you're going to be going around ogling people." Modest needn't mean boring, insists Jamila. "A lot of young Muslim girls are quite innovative. I get a lot of my stuff from H&M - long tops, long skirts, peasanty stuff, a long denim jacket. It's definitely possible to be fashionable; it just takes a lot more consideration."
Rules also exist for men. They must be covered from the navel to the knee, and are not permitted to wear gold or silk. "It's too feminine," explains Basma. "Girls shouldn't be too masculine, and men shouldn't be too feminine. Long, girly hair is out, as are earrings and jewellery."
"It's like buying food," explains Bushra, a 19-year-old medical student. "When you go to the supermarket you have to look at the ingre dients, and when you go clothes shopping it's a similar thing." Bushra is a member of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis). Along with several others, she is sitting in the Fosis offices in a leafy suburb of north London, trying to explain that, really, being a Muslim and following fashion is no big deal.
"Non-Muslims have this misconception that we don't want to wear the scarf," says Neelam, 19, who is studying to become a teacher. "They think that we're forced to wear it. But it's what we believe in." Sara, 18, nods in agreement. "We love to dress like this."
They reel off a list of their favourite fashion stores: Dorothy Perkins, Next, Topshop, H&M, New Look. Sada, a student, works part time for Next, and used to work for Arcadia Group, where she enjoyed the perk of a discount at Topshop, one of its subsidiaries. She loves H&M with a passion. "It's the best shop for Gypsy-style tops," she says with considerable authority. "The whole Asian boom has hit the clothing industry and that helps. And it helps to have Asian women in the media who dress in both Islamic dress and in western clothes." They all seem pretty chuffed that long denim skirts are fashionable this summer. "Sometimes we'll see a girl in a short skirt," says Sada, "and we'll think, 'If only that were longer...' "
The result is outfits delicately poised between east and west. "I'm a Muslim, but I'm proud of being a Londoner through and through," says Fabek. "Most British Muslims were born and brought up here - they get their identity from that." Basma argues that there is a general move towards multicultural dress, not just in the Muslim community. "Ten years ago, no one would have countenanced Maggie Thatcher wearing something like Cherie Booth wears. It's very refreshing."