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Dress: We, Myself and I

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  • Zafar Khan
    We, Myself and I By RUTH LA FERLA Published: April 5, 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/05/fashion/05MUSLIM.html FOR Aysha Hussain, getting dressed each day
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 8, 2007
      We, Myself and I
      Published: April 5, 2007


      FOR Aysha Hussain, getting dressed each day is a
      fraught negotiation. Ms. Hussain, a 24-year-old
      magazine writer in New York, is devoted to her
      pipe-stem Levi’s and determined to incorporate their
      brash modernity into her wardrobe while adhering to
      the tenets of her Muslim faith. “It’s still a
      struggle,” Ms. Hussain, a Pakistani-American,
      confided. “But I don’t think it’s impossible.

      Ms. Hussain has worked out an artful compromise,
      concealing her curves under a mustard-tone cropped
      jacket and a tank top that is long enough to cover her

      Some of her Muslim sisters follow a more conservative
      path. Leena al-Arian, a graduate student at the
      University of Chicago, joined a women’s worship group
      last Saturday night. Her companions, who sat
      cross-legged on prayer mats in a cramped apartment in
      the Hyde Park neighborhood, were variously garbed in
      beaded tunics, harem-style trousers, gauzy veils and
      colorful pashminas. Ms. Arian herself wore a
      loose-fitting turquoise tunic over fluid jeans. She
      covered her hair, neck and shoulders with a brightly
      patterned hijab, the head scarf that is emblematic of
      the Islamic call to modesty.

      Like many of her contemporaries who come from diverse
      social and cultural backgrounds and nations, Ms. Arian
      has devised a strategy to reconcile her faith with the
      dictates of fashion — a challenge by turns stimulating
      and frustrating and, for some of her peers, a constant
      point of tension.

      Injecting fashion into a traditional Muslim wardrobe
      is “walking a fine line,” said Dilshad D. Ali, the
      Islam editor of Beliefnet.com, a Web site for
      spiritual seekers. A flash point for controversy is
      the hijab, which is viewed by some as a politically
      charged symbol of radical Islam and of female
      subjugation that invites reactions from curiosity to
      outright hostility.

      In purely aesthetic terms, the devout must work to
      evolve a style that is attractive but not provocative,
      demure but not dour — friendly to Muslims and
      non-Muslims alike.

      “Some young women follow the letter of the rule,” Ms.
      Ali observed. Others are more flexible. “Maybe their
      shirts are tight. Maybe the scarf is not really
      covering their chest, and older Muslim women’s tongues
      will wag.”

      The search for balance makes getting dressed “a really
      intentional, mindful event in our lives every day,”
      said Asra Nomani, the outspoken author of “Standing
      Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the
      Soul of Islam” (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Clothing is
      all the more significant, Ms. Nomani said, because
      what a Muslim woman chooses to wear “is a critical
      part of her identity.”

      Many younger women seek proactively to shape that
      identity, adopting the hijab without pressure from
      family or friends, or from the Koran, which does not
      mandate covering the head.

      “Family pressure is the exception, not the rule,” said
      Ausma Khan, the editor of Muslim Girl, a new magazine
      aimed at young women who, when it come to dress, “make
      their own personal choice.”

      The decision can be difficult. Today few retailers
      cater to a growing American Muslim population that is
      variously estimated to be in the range of three to
      seven million. “Looking for clothes that are covering
      can be a real challenge when you go to a typical
      store,” Ms. Khan said.

      Only a couple of years ago, Nordstrom conducted a
      fashion seminar at the Tysons Corner Center mall in
      McLean, Va., a magnet for affluent Muslim women in
      suburban Washington. The store sought to entice them
      with a profusion of head scarves, patterned blouses
      and subdued tailored pieces, but for the most part
      missed the nuances, said shoppers who attended the
      event. They were shown calf-length skirts and
      short-sleeve jackets of a type prohibited for the
      orthodox, who cover their legs and arms entirely.

      “For me the biggest struggle is to find clothes in the
      department stores,” said Ms. Arian, who has worn the
      hijab since she was 13. She scours the Web and stores
      like Bebe, Zara, Express and H & M for skirts long
      enough to meet her standards. The majority, gathered
      through the hips, are “not very flattering on women
      with curves,” she said, chuckling ruefully, “and a lot
      of Middle Eastern women have curves.”

      Maryah Qureshi, a graduate student in Chicago, has a
      similarly tricky time navigating conventional stores.
      “When we do find a sister-friendly item,” she said,
      “we tend to buy it in every color.”

      Tam Naveed, a young freelance writer in New York, has
      devised an urbane uniform, tweed pants, a long-sleeve
      shirt and a snugly fastened scarf that dramatically
      sets off her features.

      Ms. Nomani, the author, improvises her own head
      covering by wearing a hoodie or a baseball cap to
      mosque. “I call it ghetto hijab,” she said tartly. For
      everyday, she buys shirtdresses at the Gap. “They
      cover your backside, but they’re still the Gap. That
      kind of gives you a visa between the two worlds.”

      In its fashion pages, Muslim Girl addresses concerns
      about fashion by encouraging young readers to mix and
      match current designs from a variety of sources, and
      reinforces the message that religion and fashion need
      not be mutually exclusive.

      “We are trying to keep our finger on the pulse of what
      women want,” Ms. Khan said. Fashion pages, shown
      alongside columns offering romantic advice and
      articles on saving the environment, are among the more
      popular for the magazine’s teenage readers, she said,
      adding that the magazine’s circulation of 50,000 is
      expected to double next year.

      Aspiring style-setters also find inspiration on retail
      Web sites like Artizara.com, which offers a high-neck
      white lace shirtdress and a sleeveless wrap jumper;
      and thehijabshop.com, with its elasticized hijabs,
      which can be slipped over the head.

      Some women seek out fashions from a handful of
      designers who cater to them. “I think people like me
      are starting to see that Muslim women make up a
      significant market and are expressing their
      entrepreneurial spirit,” said Brooke Samad, a
      28-year-old Muslim woman who designs kimono-sleeve
      wrap coats and floor-length interpretations of the
      pencil skirt out of a guest room in her home in
      Highland Hills, N.J.

      “We follow trends, but we do keep to our guidelines,”
      said Ms. Samad, whose label is called Marabo. “And
      we’re careful with the fabrics to make sure they
      aren’t too clingy.”

      Today fashion itself is more in tune with the values
      of Islam, revealing styles having given way to a
      relatively modest layered look. Elena Kovyrzina, the
      creative director of Muslim Girl, pointed to
      of-the-moment runway designs, any one of which might
      be appropriate for the magazine’s fashion pages: a
      voluminous Ungaro blouse with a high neck and full,
      flowing sleeves; a billowing Marni coat discreetly
      belted at the waist; and a Prada satin turban. Among
      the more free-spirited looks Ms. Kovyrzina singled out
      was a DKNY long-sleeve shirt and man-tailored
      trousers, topped with a hair-concealing baseball cap.

      There are Muslim women who choose to cover as part of
      a journey of self-discovery. In “Infidel” (Free Press,
      2007), her memoir of rebellion, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
      recalls as a girl wearing a concealing long black
      robe. “It had a thrill to it,” Ms. Hirsi Ali writes,
      “a sensuous feeling. It made me feel powerful:
      underneath this screen lay a previously unsuspected
      but potentially lethal femininity. I was unique.”

      But adopting the hijab also invites adversity. A
      survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations
      last year found that nearly half of Americans believe
      that Islam encourages the oppression of women.
      Referring to that survey, Ms. Hussain, the New York
      journalist, observed, “Many of these people think,
      ‘Oh, if a woman is covered, she must be oppressed.’ ”

      Still, after 9/11, Ms. Hussain made a point of wearing
      the hijab. “Politically,” she said, “it lets people
      know you’re not trying to hide from them.”

      Among the young, Ms. Nomani said, “there is a pressure
      to show your colors.”

      “Young people aren’t empowered enough to change
      foreign policy,” she said, so they adopt a hybrid of
      modern and Muslim garb, which is “their way to say,
      ‘I’m Muslim and I’m proud.’ ”

      Such bravado has its perils. Jenan Mohajir, a member
      of the prayer group near the University of Chicago,
      spoke with some bitterness about being waylaid as she
      traveled. Ms. Mohajir, who works with the Interfaith
      Youth Core, which promotes cooperation among
      religions, recalled an official at airport security
      telling her: “You might as well step aside. You have
      too many clothes on.”

      What was she wearing? “Jeans, a tunic, sandals and a

      Ms. Hussain no longer covers her head but has adopted
      a look meant to play down misconceptions without
      compromising her piety. “Living in New York,” she
      said, “has made me want to experiment more with colors
      and in general to be more bold. I don’t want to scare
      people. I want them to say, ‘Wow!’ ”

      She has noticed a like-minded tendency among her
      peers. “In the way that we present ourselves to the
      rest of the world, we are definitely lightening up.”
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