Hijab chic on the catwalk


IT’S FASHION, but not as we know it. The latest trends in “hijab chic” will be unveiled at a fashion show in UCD today when over one hundred young Muslim women gather at a female-only event to strike a pose in a headscarf.

Instead of the usual catwalk uniform of plunging necklines and form-fitting couture, participants will be conservatively covered up for the second annual Hijab Fashion Show organised by students of the university.

“Our aim is to promote the hijab, to show how it can be worn anytime, anywhere and to communicate the message that beauty can be modest and fashionable at the same time,” says food science student Fatima Elkhomssi (18), at a meeting with the rest of the event’s organising committee in UCD’s Student Centre.

The women – some international students from countries such as Malaysia, others who have spent most of their lives in Ireland after arriving with their families from Libya, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan – are keen to dispel what they see as myths about the conservative Muslim dress code.

Student teacher Anissa Majeed came to Dublin from England with her family as a young girl and says the stereotypes of Muslim women being oppressed by the dress code are, in her experience, misleading.

“Hopefully this event will show people that we don’t go around in black sacks and that we enjoy covering our heads,” she says. “There’s a natural curiosity about women who wear the hijab so we wanted to give people a platform to ask questions and show that it’s possible to be fun and fashionable while still retaining our Islamic principles.”

The practice of “observing hijab” means to cover up in loose clothes, only exposing the hands and face of a woman, and stems from a passage in the Koran which states: “Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty. They should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their ornaments.” According to the Koran, men must also behave respectfully in front of women. “Men are also expected to lower their gazes, it’s not all the responsibility of the woman,” explains Fatima.

WHILE FOR THEM wearing the hijab is “liberating”, the women are aware that the hijab is a politically charged piece of clothing and, for some, a symbol of that religion’s subjugation of women.

“I can understand how someone who has never met a Muslim woman or has only experienced them through the media might have questions about it and that’s why we are holding the event,” says Somaia Elsayed (20), a medical student who has been living here for eight years.

Bio medical health student Samah Mohamed Ali (20) came to Dublin from Saudi Arabia over 10 years ago and says she feels “beautiful and protected” in her headscarf. “My parents never pushed me to wear the hijab but I was very proud of myself when I began to wear it,” she says. “For me it represents true beauty. I think of myself as a pearl in a shell – a pearl is beautiful but it is also protected.” Friends in school in Kilkenny said it made her look “like the Virgin Mary” and her response was to buy headscarves for them to try on. “They thought it was fun,” she laughs.

None of the women who went through the Irish school system were ever stopped from wearing the hijab. “It was never a problem, my principal was brilliant,” says Samah. The issue made headlines last May when the principal of Gorey Community School in Co Wexford called on the Department of Education to advise on whether Muslim students should be allowed to wear their hijab to school. In the event, the department left it up to individual schools to decide on their uniform policy.

One annoying misperception about the hijab, according to the women, is that they are forced by their families or by male relations to cover up. “It’s an order that comes from an immortal not a mortal,” is how Anissa puts it.

“The main reason I do it is that I believe strongly in Islam, I was asked by God to do this, it’s part of my faith,” says medical student Somaia Elsayed, who has lived in Ireland for eight years. “I believe that it makes people look at your personality before anything else, which is a good thing.”

Anissa agrees: “Generally fashion tends to strip the woman bare; I mean if you want to sell something just use a naked woman . . . We view the hijab as something that stops us from being exploited. We are covered up so we don’t have to worry about falling into traps where girls feel they have to be a certain size or show a certain amount of skin to fit in with society. With hijab it doesn’t matter if you are size 16 or size zero, it makes everyone feel special,” she argues. “On Friday nights when I see women out in strappy tops and short skirts I say ‘Thank God I don’t have to do that,’ but each to their own.”

Malaysian medical student Aisiyah Ismail says she “loves” wearing the hijab despite initial difficulties she experienced as a teenager. “I started wearing it a few years ago in the UK and some of the kids there wouldn’t talk to me, one even pulled my scarf and said, ‘Let’s see your hair, have you got blue hair?’ It takes a lot of confidence to wear one so I wouldn’t blame any Muslim women who don’t want to wear it,” she says.

The women have no problem with Muslim women who decide not to cover their heads. “It’s between you and God,” says Fatima. “Nobody else can stand in judgment.”

THE NOTION OF “hijab chic” has been gaining currency in recent years, with designers such as Hermès targeting modern Muslim women who collect hijabs the way some women accumulate shoes. (“I have over 100,” confesses Somaia.)

The UCD fashion show also reflects the popularity of blogs such as Hijab Style, run by Jana Kossaibati a UK-based student who set it up a year ago in the absence of any real online discourse about Muslim fashion. She blogs on the sporty, casual, workwear and special occasion styles that will be represented at today’s show. Organiser Intan Syafiqah says the event is simply “a chance for us to put on our best outfits and headscarves to go and battle it out on the runway.”

Khaula Bhutta (19), who studies in DCU where she is the only female member of the university’s Islamic Society, came here when she was four years old from Pakistan. Already, she has been fielding text messages from men desperate to attend the show.

“They’ve been volunteering to help with the lighting or any technical issues,” she smiles. “But we really want this to be a girls’ night out, where Muslim and non-Muslim women can relax and have fun, enjoying the fashion and just being themselves.”