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The hijab and veil are gaining prominence on the runways, but should these religious symbols ever be looked at through the lens of fashion? Hijabi journalist Eman Mustafa Bare explores the topic.

OPINION: I grew up wearing the hijab post-9/11. It wasn’t considered “trendy” at the time. In fact, my parents were so concerned for my safety that they begged me not to wear a veil. The rebellious adolescent in me refused, and every morning I left home with an elaborate fuchsia or leopard print piece of fabric wrapped snugly around my head.

Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.

As a teenager, I spent more time shopping in the men’s section of stores than women’s. It was impossible to find fashionable, modest garments and ultimately, I began making my own. Men’s pants paired with an oversized cropped blouse, printed veils, and extravagant shoes became my signature – all put together with a massive haute couture-inspired bow placed strategically on the right side of my veil. It was a “look,” and one that I attribute to the lack of inclusivity in fashion at the time. While hijab-fashion has always been trending in the Arab world, for a Canadian girl hidden in a small prairie town, my choices were limited.

Hijab has never created barriers for me, even though the rest of the world perceives it that way. But it was a reminder that I needed to develop space for myself. Fashion did not include or feature women who looked like me, and so I had to create my own looks. Even an uneventful chore, like getting a haircut, became an obstacle.

The hijab and the veil are perhaps the most polarizing garments of our time. No more than two meters in length, an inconspicuous piece of woven fabric has garnered varying international reactions, ranging from mandatory observation in some countries to an outright ban in others. They have become nuclear chess pieces used by political and religious figures around the globe, and focal points in an ideological warfare between East and West.

Just when it seemed like neither could not possibly become further embroiled in politics, they took a sharp left, and seamlessly transitioned into high-fashion accessories. Hijabs and veils graced runways in Paris, Milan, and New York, and were featured by Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Versace, and Yeezy. Reactions have been polarizing. Some public commentators have suggested that fashion embracing the hijab and veil normalizes the oppression of women. Others argue that religious symbols are being commodified. Some say it will help fight Islamophobia in countries still deemed strangers to this reality.

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Who decides? Who really owns the hijab? While European and American designers’ obsession with the hijab may appear sudden, it dates back to colonial times. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the veil was an object of fascination for European travelers. During the Algerian War of Independence, “unveiling parties” were orchestrated by the French military, where women were coerced into removing their hijabs to showcase their assimilation into French culture. It backfired – instead, women wore the hijab in defiance. Following the liberation of Algeria in 1962, women decided to unveil.

Now fashion also wants a say. For the last two seasons, Western designers have been lauded for their inclusion of the hijab and veil on runways, but should we – hijabi women – be celebrating? “As a woman who wears a veil, I want to be excited about these changes, but I’m hesitant,” says Heba Jalloul, a Lebanese-American modest fashion blogger. “Muslim women launched the modest fashion industry and we are purposefully being left out.”

She’s right. The looks being touted on runways are little more than a recycling of styling trends that Muslim women from around the globe have perfected and passed over. Large-brimmed hats and chiffon veils, as seen at the Marc Jacobs FW18 show are staple looks throughout the Middle East and modest fashion blogs around the world. The fitted hijab paired with a sleeveless dress and leggings in Chromat’s FW18 line can even been seen in school playgrounds, having been worn by teenage Muslim girls for years.

Jalloul’s biggest concern with runway hijabs and veils is the language that’s being used and the choice of models. While hijab “inspired” looks were consistent through SS18 and FW18, not a single designer referred to the garment as a hijab or referenced Muslim women at all. “Where was Halima Aden at Gucci’s show?” asks Jalloul. “Gucci could have had an actual Muslim woman walk its show in a hijab, but didn’t.” The Marc Jacobs show was no different. “It featured women wearing hijabs, yet the word hijab was never used,” says Jalloul. “It’s almost like they are trying to erase us.” The modest fashion industry was pushed into popularity almost exclusively by Muslim women. We created our own market, forecasted our own trends, and launched successful companies. Through social media apps and blogs, we pioneered so much momentum that some of the most significant fashion houses were forced to recognize us and our veils.

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The sudden surge of hijab-wearing models argues that the commodification of the hijab benefits Muslim women. Five years ago, it was unheard of for a modeling agency to hire a hijabi model on the basis of it being too difficult to cast someone who abides by a strict religious dress code. Yet this year alone, hijabi models have walked for some of the biggest names in fashion – a development that would not have been possible without hijabs entering main- stream fashion. Earlier this year, Shahira Yusuf became the first hijab-wearing model signed by Storm Management, followed by Ikram Abdi Omar.

In 2017, Aden, the current sweetheart of fashion, made history as the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to walk in New York Fashion Week at Yeezy Season 5. She continued to shatter glass ceilings when she graced the covers of Vogue around the world – Vogue Arabia’s June 2017 issue, British Vogue May 2018, and Teen Vogue July 2018. Should Muslim women be grateful for a seat at the table they originally built? While the buzz around the hijab on runways is helping normalize public opinion of the garment, the high-fashion industry has a responsibility to do more for the women behind the veil: love Muslim women in the same manner that it loves their style. Should the hijab ever be considered fashion? The answer is yes. Women’s garments will always be looked at through the lens of fashion and politics.

I held my breath for parts of the Gucci show. But then I stopped. Twenty-something-year-old me was irritated, but 12-year-old me would have seen a world of opportunity. We all need to know that dreams are possible. Seeing the hijab and veil celebrated – regardless of by who – does exactly that.

Story by Vogue

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