Hijabs on the catwalk: Modest fashion hits the mainstream

As modern Islamic fashion grows more popular, critics from all sides lash out.

Photo by: TRT WORLD
Photo by: TRT WORLD

Updated May 25, 2016

Her big blue eyes and bright red lips are now framed by a veil, her famous long legs shrouded in an ankle-length gown. Barbie has become an icon for a new demographic: Muslim girls and young women who want the world to know they will not be ignored. And Haneefah Adam, the 24-year-old creator of the Hijarbie range of clothing for the Mattel doll, has become a social media star as a result; she has 66,000 followers on Instagram. The Nigerian pharmacology student now plans to sell the Hijarbie range around the world through an online portal.

“It’s very important for a young girl to be able to identify with her culture and roots, and be able to relate and play with (such dolls). It helps with her self esteem,” says Adam.

The Hijarbie is part of a growing trend among fashion-conscious Muslim women who want to fit into mainstream society while adhering to the tenets of their religion. But the shift has angered conservatives and liberals alike.

These issues, along with long flowing robes and elaborate head coverings, came under the spotlight at the recent Istanbul Modest Fashion Week. The event showcased 70 designers and brands from more than 30 countries. Sidebar events included talks with Instagram celebrities such as Adam.

On the last day of the event, protesters from the Free Thought and Education Rights Association gathered outside venue, the storied Haydarpasa station, to complain that the event goes against Islamic principles and objectifies women, according to the Al-Monitor website. Another angry person tweeted: “Veiling is not fashion, it is God’s order.”

Muslim apparel is a burgeoning market the fashion industry cannot afford to ignore. This small but fast-growing niche has been buoyed by the rise of Muslim consumers with deep pockets.

The numbers bear this out: By 2030, almost a third of the global population will be Muslim, with an average age of 30, according to The Pew Research Center. And Muslims are spending more on fashion. Globally, they spent $230 billion on clothing and shoes in 2014. But that’s projected to rise to $327 billion by 2020, according to a 2015/16 report by Thomson Reuters.

Mainstream brands have started to take notice over the past two years. DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta and Dolce and Gabbana, whose abayas are trimmed with black lace and feature oversized printed daisies and lemons, have all launched collections for Ramadan. And recently, fast-fashion lines such as Uniqlo, Mango and Zara have also gotten in on the act.

Last year, H&M featured Mariah Idrissi, its first hijab-wearing model in an ad campaign promoting sustainable fashion. In the video,  23-year-old Idrissi, who sports a nose ring, leans against a doorframe, a chequered scarf draped over her head and neck. Turbaned Sikhs, ageing rockers and transvestites are also in the video, which promotes diversity.

“We are just 20-somethings who want to be included and given a bit more more choice,” said Idrissi in a telephone interview. “(The ad) has had a positive impact. There’s so much negative media surrounding Muslim women, it balances it out. We have these stereotypes against Muslim women, and (the fact that) Muslim women are in fashion contradicts this.”  

Elsewhere, some Western liberals have lashed out at designers who create clothes for Muslims. When Marks and Spencers put its “burkini”, swimwear which covers the female body from head to ankle, online this year, it sparked a firestorm in France. Women’s rights minister, Laurence Rossignol told on BFMTV “When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.” The French constitution enshrines secularism, and France outlaws the overt use of religious symbolism.

However Neslihan Cevik, founder of a fashion line and consultant to the Organization of Islamic Conference says that modest fashion has allowed for increased participation for hijab-clad women in public life.

But the backlash against the rise of modest fashion has also come from some Muslim feminists.

Asra Nomani, a journalist and author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam says: “The underlying message of the scarf is that we are vessels of honour and chastity in our society. It’s used to deny us rights from the mosque to public spaces. This whole phenomenon of hijab fashion shows it is a normalising phenomenon that is troubling.” Nomani says she is concerned because the use of the hijab in some Muslim communities involves an element of coercion.

But raise these matters with any of the young women at the Istanbul Modest Fashion Week and it elicits little more than a shrug. “Sure (the hijab) is a religious marker and a huge part of our identity. But all this is fear-mongering talk to millennials and our generation is annoyed with it,” says Noor Tagouri, a journalist for CBS, who at one time wanted to be the first hijab-wearing anchorwoman in the US. “We want to grow up productive. We are getting more politically involved and (through fashion) creating a dialogue between non-Muslims and Muslims.”

Author: Lim Li Min