Religious conservatism gone creative with the Muslim hijab

Anna Schulte/Daily
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By Erin Steele, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 27, 2011

In a fashion industry where avant-garde is the name of the game and style icons like Lady Gaga parade around in scandalous outfits made out of everything from stuffed animals to raw meat, dressing according to a relatively conservative set of rules may be thought to stifle one’s creativity. But Muslim students at the University are demonstrating the exact opposite.

Verse 33:59 in the Shakir translation of the Qur’an — “O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble” — explains the idea behind hijab, an Islamic style of dress that promotes modesty among both women and men. Those who choose to wear hijab are to cover their heads and wear loose, non-transparent clothing with long sleeves and pant legs or skirts.

While followers of Islam have different beliefs about the technicalities — whether feet are allowed to be shown or whether women have to cover their entire face — the underlying principle is the same for all.

“It’s about the modesty and how you carry yourself,” said political science doctorate student and former hijab fashion blogger Imaan Ali. “Men, for example, they’re not supposed to wear something shorter than to their knee.”

The hijab, according to Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies Mohommad Alhawary, is described in the Qur’an as a way of allowing people, especially women, to actively participate in society and maintain separation of the public and private spheres.

“You see now in social networks, Facebook and other places — people have no separation,” Alhawary said. “They get in trouble whether with themselves, with their peers (or) with their employers because there’s no observance of separation in private life and public life.”

Over thousands of years, observers of hijab have used their creativity to dress themselves according to worldly trends without violating the rules set forth by the Qur’an.

Ali began wearing hijab at 20 years old, a fashion-conscious age for many. A fan of H&M and Forever 21 scarves, she follows the latest runway collections for inspiration.

“You can kind of modify and make the trends (to) what you want to wear,” she said. “You have to use your imagination. It was really a challenge at the start.”

Ali also said hijab styles vary widely across all Muslim countries. Generally, women in the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait) tend to wear long black dresses and cover everything but their eyes, while women in Egypt and the Levant (a region including most of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories) wear more colorful scarves and expose their faces.

“You can tell where people are from based on how they tie their scarves,” Ali said. “Lately, the borders are a little bit smudged. I wear this one day, I wear the Spanish (scarf) another day. It’s totally up to you. You use your imagination. It takes some practice to know what looks good and what doesn’t make you look really weird.”

Alhawary cites Turkey as one of the largest current influences in hijab fashion, saying this is likely due to the country’s recent secularization and people’s attempts to maintain the hijab in a less jarring way.

“For the first seven years (I wore a headscarf), it was about matching my hijab to my outfit,” LSA senior and Muslim Student Association president Eman Abdelhadi said. “For the next seven years, it was about matching my outfit to my hijab!”

Abdelhadi has been wearing hijab since she was nine years old and is a fan of the colorful silky scarves she finds during her visits to Egypt.

“They’re just so gorgeous,” she said. “I tend to wear more solid colors, so I love just wearing a pretty normal outfit that’s just solid colors … and then having the hijab be the thing that pops out. Everyone’s looking at it, so might as well make it pretty!”

Abdelhadi is used to getting attention everywhere when she wears hijab in public, although it doesn't bother her as much in Ann Arbor.

“There is a sense of being different and being stared at,” she said. “The reason I know this is because I travel to the Middle East relatively frequently, and when I travel, it’s a different feeling. At first, it’s hard to pinpoint, but then I realize it’s because people aren’t staring at me when I walk in a room. I’m used to (walking) into a room and everyone (looking) at me. … There’s sort of the lingering gaze.”

Both Ali and Alhawary also pointed out the misconceptions surrounding the practice of hijab and the thought that it intrinsically oppresses women. Ali said she has had trouble finding work at home in Norway because some people refuse to employ wearers of hijab. Alhawary argues that it is important to separate the religious foundation of hijab from its cultural contexts — the other stricter practices that sometimes occur in conjunction with it. He said the intent of the religious ruling can be equally misunderstood by Muslims and non-Muslims because it is observed in countries where policies are employed that affect the lives of women for political reasons rather than religious ones.

Despite its potential to be misconstrued, Ali and Abdelhadi are proud to wear hijab on their own terms and represent their religion in a positive way.

“I really consider myself a Muslim feminist in a way, because I believe in the power of women,” Ali said. “I don’t believe we should do anything for men.”

Abdelhadi mentioned another important perk: “You know, it’s true that when you have a bad hair day, it’s really nice to wear hijab.”