Sunday, 1 January 2012

Hijab Fashion And The City

Colorful scarves in a shop in Indonesia.

Rosemary’s Note: This story was produced in the Indiana University School of Journalism class Muslims in the Media. Instructor Ammina Kothari asked her students to report a story about some aspect of Muslim life. Over the next few days we’ll be sharing a few of those pieces with you. This is the first.

Author: Erin Walgamuth

Delicately draped with lavish embroidery, the colorful textiles of Muslim women’s hijabs have become more than just a statement of religion in the past ten years. More women are putting their own stylistic touches into Muslim dress.

“Chic hijab” melds fashion and religion in that it allows women to maintain modesty while dressing fashionably. The elegant tapestry is twisted and tied into eccentric knots that require time, patience and an eye for fashion.

Mariam Sobh began wearing hijab when she was eight years-old. While she started with a more traditional hijab, she used her eye for fashion to incorporate her own style with her modest dress.

The mother, practicing Muslim and editor-in-chief of considers her style to be a toned-down version of modern hijab fashion. Sobh, who isn’t into extravagant techniques and knots and pins that many young hijab wearers like, tends to wear wrap scarves in various colors and the triangle hijab with a pin to hold it back.

Like many twentieth-century hijab wearers, she considers her colorful style to be chic and modern while maintaining modest coverage. It is Sobh’s attention to fashion and her own stylistic touches that ease her connection with non-Muslims, inviting curiosity and appreciation rather than negativity or otherness.

Like other women, many Muslim women are preoccupied with consumer culture. They have a desire for more contemporary modest dress that combines their sense of individuality with their Islamic beliefs and values.

Hijab As Identity

Emma Tarlo, a British scholar who examined chic hijab in England, explains in her book, “Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith,” that hijabs are not just simple pieces of cloth; rather, they are symbols of identity and otherness. Moreover, she notes that Muslim women find themselves in a double bind when dressing in hijab. They must pull from both mainstream, non-Muslim fashion influences of the West as well as traditional Muslim aesthetics to embody “their complex, multiple and hybrid identities.”

“Certainly many Muslim women talk about hijab in terms of a rejection of ‘Western consumerism’ and beauty ideals,” said Tarlo. “At the same time most still want to look attractive and do not want to be seen simply as a walking symbol of piety.”

Rabia Zargarpur, a Dubai-born New York designer and practicing Muslim, began her fashion career designing chic hijabs after converting to Islam. Unable to find clothes that expressed her fashion ideals and personal values while still upholding her Islamic beliefs, she began catering to the needs of her fellow Ummah members.

“There’s just hundreds of thousands of them out there, just like myself, struggling in the sense that they don’t see anything wrong in dressing stylishly as long as it’s modest and conservative,” said Zargarpur in an interview with CBS.

She and many other designers have been at the forefront of a trend that is on its way to the US: chic hijabs. This modern, modest fashion is allowing Muslim women to practice their faith while blending into the “Western” culture of dress.

Market Growing Online

The increased demand for dress that combines Islamic values with style and fashion has pushed local designers online, accessing a more global market. The Internet, in this sense, is used as a tool for networking, sharing and spreading ideas about stylish Islamic dress among people all across the world.

Over the past decade, the number of websites targeting consumer goods at Muslims in the Western market has substantially increased. Websites like, and are all examples of outlets where Muslim women can share their experiences.

With access to a world of fashion at the click of a mouse, Muslim women are able to purchase “ready-made” hijab outfits or find inspiration for their style by what other hijabi women are wearing across the globe.

“Whether it’s how to put on a new style or what outfits look good, more women are able to find tutorials and tips,” said Sobh. “In the past people waited for friends to come from overseas and hope they found something that suited their taste and style. But now they can pick it out themselves.”

Chic Hijabs Change Perceptions?

Though not yet sold on the mainstream market, chic hijabs could become the norm for many Muslim women, and could help to change the way Americans perceive Muslim women and Islam as a whole.

“With this more modern look, hopefully Americans will see the similarities between the way Muslim women dress and people of other faiths that have similar requirements,” said Sobh. “With hijabi fashion, people will begin to be more accepting because they will be able to relate in a fashion way.”

The main reference point for religious understanding of Islamic dress is found in the Quran, the Muslim sacred text believed to be the direct word of God as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. The Quran serves as a sort of guideline for modest Muslim dress.

“There are always those few out there who will say ‘this isn’t the way we’re supposed to dress, we aren’t supposed to draw attention to ourselves’,” said Sobh. “The whole point of being modest is to go about your day inconspicuously, but if there’s a specific guideline for what you can wear, it’s just that: a guideline. You can still make it look nice; it doesn’t have to look old and frumpy.”

Sobh pointed out that even non-Muslims like J.Lo have been spotted wearing a headscarf. While the styles have been targeted toward young practicing Muslims, some controversy has arisen about non-Muslims wearing the hijabi fashions. Sobh doesn’t see a problem with other women wearing the “look” for fashion, saying it brings back “a sort of feminine mystery” that’s been lost in our society.

“People are adapting, and that’s why I think more and more girls, young women and teenagers are excited and interested to wear hijab. They see that it doesn’t mean they have to change their lives,” said Sobh. “They can be who they are and still be modest.”


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