Cover to Cover

My history with a headscarf

There was no dramatic moment in which I started wearing the hijab. In fact, it happened so suddenly my mom assumed that I started wearing it to avoid brushing my hair every morning. Just to make sure that laziness wasn’t a factor in my decision, for the first year or so she would check my hair every morning before school to make sure it was still getting brushed.

Now I’m 21, and it’s been almost a decade since I started covering my hair and neck with a hijab (hijab refers to the Muslim practice of modest dressing, but it can also refer specifically to the headscarf). Having lived my whole life in a diverse Canadian city, it doesn’t get that much attention. Still, the ignorance I do sometimes encounter tends to come more in the form of condescending than hostile.

There was the time an old co-worker empathetically told me how bad she felt that I had no choice but to wear the hijab and how sad it was that I couldn’t be “free” like other girls my age. Even though I kindly explained to her that I wanted to wear the hijab and that it was a choice I made for myself without any outside pressure, she remained unconvinced. The poor woman was putting herself through mental gymnastics trying to liberate a free woman, while I was just trying to find a polite way to excuse myself from the conversation so I could go home and watch Arrested Development.

Every fellow hijabi that I know just wishes that people would ask us questions about the hijab, rather than make offensive assumptions. It’s a question that makes people uneasy. After about thirty seconds of them telling me how much they don’t want to offend me and how I don’t have to answer their questions unless I am comfortable, I give them a simple answer: because I want to and I love it. At this point, they look at me as if I’m cheating them out of the real answer, but really that’s what it comes down to. I wear the hijab because I am a Muslim woman and I believe my hair and body are my business, and mine only. It’s more than just a religious symbol (though that is a part of it); it acts as a sort of security blanket. I choose who sees what’s under there and that gives me a sense of power and reassurance I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Likewise, it bothers me when girls tell me how lucky I am that I can be ugly and nobody would know. I still know what I look like underneath and let’s be real: my opinion is the most important. It makes me recall my mom checking my hair every morning before school; at the time, I found that to be pointless, but it taught me something valuable about what it means to wear the hijab. Although nobody on the outside could see my hair, my appearance underneath can still hold as much significance as I want to give it.

Not unlike hair, my hijab has evolved with me over time and I have tried many different styles. I went from trying my hardest to not stick out and only wear muted colours, to wearing fuchsia pashminas in order to match my shoes. I still look back on my tent style hijab of 2005—a square silk scarf pinned together at the throat—and shudder. I think I’ve found the best way to wrap it around my long head to compliment my Somali forehead, but I can only wonder if in a few years I’ll look back and be embarrassed the same way we all collectively cringe when we remember the ’80s. And hey, who knows—maybe next year my tent hijab will come back in style.

text // Sarah Hagi
photography // Remi Theriault
Read more hair stories in Worn Fashion Journal issue 15, on sale now.

Book Review – Visibly Muslim

I’ve never been religious, but wrangling my political convictions and a love for clothing taught me the vicissitudes of negotiating two value systems that are seemingly at odds while attempting to craft an image that reflects my beliefs and is aesthetically pleasing (to me, at least). It is this tension that drives Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith, which looks at Muslim women who cover in contemporary England through a series of ethnographic profiles highlighting the diversity of their practices and perspectives. Anthropologist Emma Tarlo attends at length to how individual women reconcile visibly displaying their faith with the desire to dress fashionably and self-expressively.

Tarlo describes in great detail how her subjects adapt and negotiate signifiers of both Islam and style in order to craft their own looks, and she repeatedly emphasizes the great creativity of Muslim dress in the West. Noting that some of her subjects have more than 500 hijabs, she argues that the headscarf serves as “a new form of Muslim personal art” that in many cases “provides the aesthetic focal point of a young girl’s appearance.”
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Burqa Barbie Backlash

A recent exhibition in Italy that includes several burqa-wearing Barbies has unleashed, of course, a wave of scandal, much of which is precisely the sort of ill-informed knee-jerk backlash about Islamic women that makes my skin crawl. Typical is Barbara Kay’s assertion, in the National Post, that these are “travesties of multiculturalism” that “make a mockery of disempowered women who have been stripped of all human dignity, women with no means of challenging their forced depersonalization.” OK, so fierce rhetoric. But let’s unpack a little, shall we?

The Barbies in question are part of a 500-piece exhibition of Eliana Lorena-dressed dolls at the Salone del Cinquecento in Florence, backed by Mattel. These one-off dolls will be displayed, then auctioned off by Sotheby’s on behalf of a charity called Rewrite the Future, which benefits children affected by war. In addition to a few fluorescent burqa-clad Barbies, we find geisha Barbies, shalwar khameez Barbies, chador Barbies, and what can only be described as slutty co-ed Barbies. In short, the collection runs the gamut of cheesy feminine stereotypes, by region. So far, I’d say we’re pretty firmly on standard Barbie territory.

Kay writes plaintively that, with this exhibition, “Barbie has shed her cultural innocence.” It seems to me a thundering irony to accuse the burqa of having suddenly rendered Barbie anti-feminist, given that the doll is based on a German hooker called Lilli and has a—shall we say—fraught history as a model for women’s self-images.

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