Though 2017 is still in its infancy, it already seems like a great year for religious Muslim fashion. The maiden issue of Vogue Arabia was published earlier this month; London hosted its first Modest Fashion Week in February; and a hijab for athletes was developed by Nike and launched on a new website called the Modist, which offers shopping and other services for the traditional fashionista.
In addition, more and more popular brands are following the trend Dolce & Gabbana started last year by offering hijabs and abayas (a loose-fitting full-length robe) in modern styles. They include designer brands like Oscar de la Renta and DKNY, alongside brands such as Uniqlo and Mango.
“Modesty isn’t necessarily connected to religion,” said Amarat Altoree, 33, a designer of modest fashion from Ramle. “It’s something that’s becoming connected to lifestyle.”
As evidence, she cites the “Mipsterz” – Muslim hipsters who cover their hair but don’t necessarily observe other religious customs. It’s not uncommon to find them drinking alcohol in European capitals, for instance. This trend is a counterreaction to the type of feminism that says a hijab-wearing woman is necessarily oppressed, said Altoree.
“The world is starting to change,” she continued. “What was once considered outdated is now considered feminist. Today, there are ‘hijabista’ models” – the word is a combination of hijab and fashionista – “and they dominate the runways. The world is starting to accept difference as something that isn’t frightening.”
Eyal Sagui Bizawe, who writes about culture in the Arab world for Haaretz, believes the change in consciousness that led to this development began with the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. That’s when people started getting interested in the Arab world, and not just as a producer of terrorism that ought to be viewed through the prism of intelligence, he said.
“You suddenly started seeing more interest in modern poetry, culture and art from the Arab world – a field that until then was generally reserved for academics and what we term experts,” he said.
At the same time, Bizawe noted, the hijab changed from being a strictly religious item of clothing to one that attested to identity – and, beyond that, to an item of fashion in every respect.
To understand this change, it helps to look at the early 20th century and the feminist mood that prevailed in parts of the Arab world at the time.
“In the 1920s, the feminist Huda Sha’arawi arrived at Cairo railway station from Rome and removed the veil from her face,” Bizawe said. “So did the women who supported her and who had come to welcome her. In other words, if in the past feminism was necessarily equivalent to Westernization, years later there are already feminist women who speak from ‘behind the veil.’
“At the same time,” he continued, “the hijab has become a chic article of clothing – perhaps as a challenge to the culture that comes from the West and the fashions that come from there: ‘You draw your inspiration from Milan, Paris and London? We draw ours from Saudi Arabia.’ And suddenly there are magazines like Hijab Fashion that are starting to speak about modest dress in terms of fashion.”
Maryam Rifai, 25, lives near Ramallah. “I think whether you wear a hijab or not is your choice, not anyone else’s,” she said, adding, “The very fact that you’re protecting your right to choose makes you a feminist.”
Rifai said hijab-wearing women are often waging a two-pronged battle – against both traditional Muslims of the older generation (“The kind that prefer women not to have characters”) and the so-called feminists who think that a woman in a hijab has no identity.
“For this reason, a woman with a hijab is often a feminist warrior on two fronts, and that’s very hard,” Rifai said. “The word ‘freedom’ has many meanings, and they also change constantly.”
Rifai believes the trend toward modest fashion will be of significant service to traditional women. “This fashion can alter the consciousness of many people because they suddenly see successful women with a hijab,” she added.
Maysaloun Hamoud recently wrote and directed the film “In Between,” about young Muslim women in Tel Aviv. She also rejects the notion that the hijab is necessarily a tool for women’s oppression, and that the companies making fashionable hijabs are encouraging outmoded views. She believes that, as with many issues related to feminism, it’s a matter of context.
“Every woman is free to choose how she dresses,” she said. “And if a woman believes and dons a hijab of her own free choice, that’s her affair.”
Absurdly, there’s almost no sign of this growing abundance of fashion here in Israel, where 20 percent of the population is Arab and, of that, 83 percent is Muslim (according to Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2015).
Many religious Muslim women say they are forced to find their own solutions, in light of the scanty supply.
Rifai, who wears a dark hijab and whose face is delicately but carefully made up, says she’s a sworn fashion addict – a common phenomenon among women like her, she said.
“Muslim women adore fashion,” she added. “When you go out into the street here, you see girls who dress fabulously. They’re wearing all kinds of styles and mixing them with the traditional hijab.”
Even though she says she wouldn’t wear many of Dolce & Gabbana’s new designs, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the collection of hijabs and abayas that it and other firms are now offering.
“Muslim women are strong women, and finally they’re starting to be given a place in the world,” said Rifai, adding, “A woman who lives a traditional life is a woman who deserves respect. One way of doing that is to create fashion options for her.”
Fadia Masarwe, 39, of Taibeh, also welcomes recent fashion developments. But as a swimming teacher, the biggest news for her is the hijab Nike developed especially for Muslim athletes. This hijab, which is worn on the head instead of being wrapped around it, is made of a light fabric with small holes in it, allowing it to breathe. It is also long in the back to prevent the woman’s back from being exposed.
But despite the excitement it has generated, the sports hijab will go on sale only next year. Meanwhile, Masarwe is forced to rely on less convenient solutions.
“I buy sports clothing in stores – leggings, a skirt and a leotard with long sleeves – and go into the pool like that,” she said. “If there are women I make do with a bathing cap. But if there are men, I wear the hijab – which gets heavy from the water and bothers my ears.”
As if the discomfort caused by cold, heavy garments weren’t enough, Masarwe is also occasionally forced to deal with comments from the lifeguard. “He says it’s permissible to enter the pool wearing only a bathing suit; that long clothing increases the risk of drowning and he’s not prepared to take responsibility,” she explained.
Ayat Atmani, 27, of Baka al-Garbiyeh shares Masarwe’s anticipation. The energetic Atmani, who works in Coca-Cola’s marketing division, spoke excitedly about the new options Nike’s hijab will provide for her and other women.
“I’m a Muslim and an Arab who lives in Israel, and fashionable, and I wear a hijab on my head – and I also adore sports,” she said, laughing.
She thinks the sports hijab is the most important element in the modest fashion revolution, because it not only sets up an alternative standard of beauty to that favored by the West, but also encourages the model of a strong Muslim woman who doesn’t cave to the pressures of her society.
“All the attention paid to the hijabistas is wonderful, but Nike’s product is the one that shatters convention because it opposes the prevailing opinion in our community – which holds that it’s unsuitable for women to do sports,” she said. “If you want to go out running in Baka al-Garbiyeh, you can only go very slowly; otherwise, people will think you’re crazy.
“It’s not as if I had a problem finding clothes before Dolce & Gabbana’s hijabs, because their designs don’t speak to me anyway, as an ordinary person who lives here in this country,” Atmani added. “Nike is really providing a solution to a real problem, and also sending all kinds of messages in the process, of which the most important is: ‘The fact I wear a hijab doesn’t mean I can’t be a feminist.’”