The choice to wear (or not wear) a hijab. Photo: Powerhouse Museum
Recently, I visited the Powerhouse Museum's Faith Fashion Fusion (FFF) Exhibition. It's a celebration of Muslim women's dress – from headscarf to hairdo – and how women are expressing themselves through fashion, without compromising their modesty. Showcasing the achievements of successful women, as well as the work of emerging fashion designers, it seemed more a celebration of Muslim women themselves.
It makes for a refreshing change, and is significant because we're not yet at the point where Muslim women's dress isn't a novelty or a source of passionate 'discussion', particularly among people unaffected by the headscarf (hijab). Mixed reactions to the exhibition indicate that women’s dress remains a hot topic – and makes FFF even more necessary.
Hijab is considered compulsory by the vast majority of Islamic scholars, but like any religious practice, observing it is still a choice women must make for themselves. It's a woman's issue and an act that belongs to us. Yet great controversy continues to surround it, from a scholarship point of view, and in the judgments laid upon women wearing it – some are criticised for being fashion-conscious, while others are considered too modest.
For the record, not everyone who wears a hijab or any derivative thereof is being forced to do so, nor is she meekly preserving her beauty for her husband (particularly difficult if you're single). It's a religious obligation, but how, why and when a woman chooses to wear it varies. FFF is proof that women are injecting their own personalities into how they dress, regardless of modesty requirements.
Still, no matter how sincere and well-intentioned the reasoning behind wearing hijab, it's not an easy thing to do, especially in a country where you’re in the minority. And ask any girl who does wear hijab, and they will tell you that they’ve had moments – either fleeting or more prolonged – where they consider taking it off, and not merely because of social pressure. Or they may love the hijab, but miss wearing short-sleeved tops and feeling the breeze rush through their hair. Faithful you may be, but you’re still very human in your desires.
Some of us eventually do take it off, and it’s a subject close to my heart. I wore the headscarf for nearly a decade, and made the decision a few years ago to remove it. Like others in my position, it didn't stem from one defining moment and my reasons were personal. I wasn't launching a crusade against hijabs, though many queried the change with suspicion. I didn't want to explain myself though – it wasn't up to anyone else to make it acceptable. I chose to put it on, and it was my decision to take it off.
It didn't stop some people from taking it personally though, and I was on the receiving end of some negative and puzzling reactions. I lost a few friends in the fallout. One was offended that I didn't want to be lectured; I was, she told me, depriving her of her faith in doing so. Her emails grew increasingly irate. When I noted that I wasn't asking her to take her headscarf off, the response was so chilly I needed a beanie.
On the flip side, I had the support of friends and family, who recognised it as my choice. Whatever their sentiments, they didn’t change their behaviour towards me. It was a challenging time, and their warmth surrounded me.
Likewise, a friend in a similar situation told me she received an email from a strict Muslim man she knew. He surprised her with his empathy, acknowledging how difficult it must be to have your faith always on display.
My situation is far from unique, though based on what I've been told in the process of researching this piece, for some women the response was far worse. One girl, a Muslim convert fresh from a painful divorce, was considered persona non grata and no longer deemed suitable marriage material in her social circle. While for many Muslim women, wearing hijab brings with it a sense of liberation, one girl I spoke to admitted that she felt boxed in and desexualised. (She hasn't ruled out wearing it again.)
My own motivations for wearing a hijab were religious, but in hindsight, it also gave me a sense of identity. Friends and I have talked about how, conversely, you eventually yearn to blend in and be inconspicuous – hijab can define you, with some finding it hard to see beyond it.
What some people didn't realise when I took it off was just how seriously I take the hijab, and that was partly why I made the change. I'd transitioned from super conservative ‘hijabi’ to gypsy chick with hoop earrings, and I wasn’t very comfortable with the change.
I’ve heard so many times that the veil is just a cloth, an argument meant to demystify it to the weary or bigoted. I can't say I agree. It's so much more than that – it is, in ideal terms, a representation of faith, and a constant reminder of it. Hijab requires pluck and dedication, and a thick skin to deal with judgment.
I found it difficult in work situations and sometimes socially – I saw judgments being formed about me on the basis of my appearance. I understood why, but it didn’t make it easy. My self-esteem was also at an all-time low, and I found myself no longer comfortable dealing with the difficulties of wearing a hijab. But this was all personal to me and I can’t speak for others.
Wearing a hijab is a deeply personal commitment that is very spiritual, empowering and dignified and I admire the women who hold their heads high and wear it with pride. Moreover, I give kudos to those who do it in style. But it’s ultimately a personal matter of faith and despite common threads, there are different approaches to modesty. It isn't, and shouldn't be, a marker for a woman's faith.
In discussing the purpose behind FFF, assistant curator Melanie Pitkin said fashion is universal and accessible; FFF opens a cultural and religious doorway many would otherwise not walk through. And you’re invited to do just that. The promotional poster is a striking portrait featuring Muslim women of different backgrounds, shapes and fashion persuasions. It shows confident Muslim women looking beautiful and proud. It’s refreshing proof that Muslim women don't form one big veiled conglomerate. We're a fluid, thoughtful bunch, influenced by faith rather than dominated by it in how we dress.
Faith Fashion Fusion is on display at the Powerhouse Museum until February 2013. The writer is not affiliated with the exhibition.