Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fashion Ideas for Muslimahs and for Non-Muslimahs (Expat Women) Wearing Hijab; Hijabi Fashion Week; Vote (29-31/12/2010) on Muslim Fashion Blogs!


Recently, I was pleased to discover a number of fashion blogs devoted to hijab, in both the narrow sense of a headscarf, and the broader sense of modest Islamic attire, which also had great ideas for outfits without the headscarf option. Some of the combinations are ones I would wear and have worn, especially during the winter months here, or when I am in a long skirt mode.

I had come across a favourite, Hegab Rehab, thanks to fashion posts on Ellen's blog Steadily Emerging With Grace; Ellen has since become involved in the renewed Al Firdous Designs here and on Facebook here.

I then discovered more Muslim fashion blogs through the Brass Crescent Awards nominations, particularly: Hot Chocolate and Mint (Honorable Mention, Best East or Southeast Asian Blog); Hijab and the City (in simple French) which won the Best European Blog Award, as a style guide and "a blog for girls who happen to be Muslim and not a Muslim blog for girls."

I have discovered more fashion blogs now because of the SistersWhoBlog Best Blog Awards 2010 (voting open December 29-31 in a number of categories).

Obligatory Dress

Eppity Primary School Uniform--notice the individual interpretations of grey, pants vs skirt, and regulation footwear; 
facial expressions and body posture are unique!

I have only been required to wear hijab when I was in Iran for a conference, and have worn it a very few times more optionally in Morocco where the circumstances warranted it. My attitude, as someone who doesn't wear hijab for religious reasons, but occasionally for socio-cultural ones, is to embrace the hijab as a fashion challenge and opportunity, much like dressing for winter in Canada.

I'd be happy not to wear winter clothes, particularly the outer garments: coat/jacket, hat/hood, scarf, gloves/mittens. However, I prefer to wear them rather than to freeze. In that spirit I choose the outer garments carefully for aesthetic pleasure, required warmth for the weather/ climate (temperatures and precipitation range within the winter season, and winters are worse in some parts of Canada than others), appropriateness for activity (professional attire, sportswear, casual wear), and mode of transportation (walking often, public transit, car). I also choose multiple accessories, in a variety of cheery and pleasing colours, because they are a welcome spot of colour and variety in a long, dull winter. Others have remarked to me that they are happy to see the bright red, or canary yellow, or electric blue, since so many stick to tones as dull as they feel and as the weather can be.

I have the same attitude towards rainwear. If the weather dictates that I must wear it, I choose styles and colours that suit and brighten the experience.

Ditto professional wear, especially in summer where I would rather be in appropriate summer attire that would pass on the humanities side of the campus, but be verboten on the medical side, and especially in the hospital. On psychotherapy clinic days, my main concern is where the hem falls when I sit, and how well it stays where it is supposed to--without becoming a major distraction for myself, or for the patients (men or women).

I have a Jewish colleague who dresses more conservatively--colour, looseness, length of sleeve and hem--in the clinic where she is most likely to see conservative Jewish women. A prominent Sudanese-American gynecologist dresses more conservatively on the clinic days reserved for East African immigrant women. On surgery days she is in universal surgical scrubs, hat, and booties; and may throw a lab coat on for specific venturing forth into other parts of the hospital.

Very serious medical students, Ahad and Asmaa (Souma, Soumz). Asmaa took most of the photos that were included with her permission on my post on medical lab coats being a problematic replacement for the abaya. The photos were originally taken for the Smile Campaign (which includes a wonderful video) she organized with her medical class, and were put on her blog, Chapter One, in the post Donate A Smile For KAUH-Snapshots. I was struck by the beautiful hijabs and the ways of wearing them by the women medical students. See either of our posts and the video for more examples.

The seasons are one form of obligatory, and sometimes restrictive dress; professionalism is another; and social harmony is a third. The latter is true anywhere, based on general cultural norms, and specific situations, eg party dress--corporate spouse clothes? corporate employee clothes? coach's spouse clothes? evening wear? garden party wear? sporting activity theme wear? themed costume party wear?, student casual wear?, etc.

Yet, the idea of dressing for social harmony is most striking perhaps in conservative cultures, and more of a cultural shock for expats arriving from (much) more liberal cultures, or nationals returning from a long stay abroad in a more liberal culture. Most often the challenge is greater for women, because of the greater cultural distance, and because women generally have a greater fashion range than men, even in a liberal culture.

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the issues around dress in Saudi Arabia, which is more restrictive for women than men, as the abaya is required in public of all, the hijab for almost all, and in some areas the niqab is at least socially imposed. While some find ways not to wear the abaya, using a lab coat for that purpose is problematic, except in the hospital or clinic setting for medical professionals (physicians, medical students, nurses, physiotherapists, lab technicians), as I have elaborated elsewhere.

Others may not wear the abaya but have sufficient chutzpah/ wasta to avoid major problems, whereas most women would be taking a bigger risk of unpleasantness by not wearing it. Solving the unpleasantness usually involves spouse, employer,  and, for expats married to Saudis, inlaws. Saudi Arabia is at least very clear about dress norms (and other rules like no driving; no public religious services) so that expats should be prepared for the social, if not legal, expectation that they will wear the abaya, and in some settings the hijab.


The requirement for hijab in a given place and situation may be primarily from the broader social milieu or from within the social class, family, or the marriage. These different loci are overlapping and interdependent, but one may still tease out the origin of the particular injunction. In some ways it is easier if it is coming from the broader social milieu or class structure, and at least one's family and spouse are on side. This makes legitimate anger and/or anger displaced from other less safe topics onto the dress codes a more acceptable emotion.

Westerners are often taken aback by how much say extended family will have--or deem that they do--in what Westerners consider private matters. Spouses returning to their own culture must contend with their own re-adaptations, including re-balancing their own relationships with now omnipresent family, and those of their spouse, who may be more or less familiar with the cultural norms, and more or less willing and able to adapt.

Mixed couples may face either more leniency or more restrictions about conforming. While both spouses will face repercussions for non-conformity, the one from the country may face more. Usually husbands are reminded to correct their wive's (mis-)behaviours. This can leave them in a double bind, and introduce new problems into a marriage which is already struggling with the changed socio-cultural and familial expectations. This becomes further complicated as both may lack supports in their new setting that they would have elsewhere (including more liberal friends and family living abroad); and, the Western spouse usually has fewer supports, at least initially.


In my own personal experience, and awareness of that of others in a variety of expat settings, I believe that adopting the most positive attitude and strategies toward obligatory cover is a choice that is ultimately less stressful on all--the woman concerned, the spouse, the family. While I can easily make the hub fall over in shock and disbelief just by saying some variant on "Whatever you say, dear" (it happens so rarely :D), I do take his word for it on the rare occasion when he suggests I wear more conservative dress in Morocco--because we will be in a more conservative area, or a more delicate one (eg in front of a major cemetery, or entering government buildings asking for paperwork), or because he knows that there will be people in some place with nothing better to do than start something over a hemline. If they start something, he is the one who will need to deal with it, more so than I, so it's the least I can do to respect his judgment on this.

Before our group went to Iran, the senior academic who had invited us as speakers sent for guidelines on dress codes from the Canadian Department of External Affairs. For women those guidelines included covering all but face, hands, and feet, loose clothing, and preferably an overdress in black, brown, dark purple, dark wine red, dark green, dark blue, or dark grey. Of those choices I thought an inexpensive navy jellabah would be the most happy and practical for me. I was going to be in Morocco just before, so when I got there I sent my SIL out to buy me one (I am "walking inflation"), as well as a plain blue headscarf to go with it and with my other Moroccan dress wear.

She came back saying she couldn't find a navy jellabah, but found one in royal blue which she knew I liked, and a scarf to go with it. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and to risk the royal blue.

Ah, but the headscarf. No one knew how to tie it in an interesting manner, since none of them wear one, except for the older women who just tie it under their chin, kerchief style. We visited the one younger family member who had recently adopted the hijab (much to everyone's shock and awe, including her husband's), but even she was a newbie and suggested a simple pinning under the chin. I sincerely wished I hadn't thrown out my Western "how to wear scarves fashionably" book, as some styles, which are Western classics, do cover hair, head, and neck.

I did bring that royal blue jellabah, a white one I had, a royal blue Moroccan evening dress with gold embroidery, and another evening dress in white, rose, and mauve. As it turned out, the blue jellabah and the blue headscarf were just the thing for professional wear, and the royal blue evening dress with the blue scarf was a hit at the banquet. It seems I looked Muslim though not Iranian, and my delayed response to Islamic greetings (I didn't realize I was the one being addressed) had people switching to English fast.


As a year in, year out, phenomenon for expats or those who dislike conservative dress in their own countries and cultures, some type of positive accommodation is more healthy than constant anger, even if it is conscientious objection with a willingness to take the consequences for oneself and for the others one cares about. Just as in other settings, conforming enough to have a better voice for change is another alternative. Making positive choices within the fashion demands--ones that look and feel good--is a staple of adapting to any fashion, social necessity, or obligatory dress code.

One might take fashion inspiration from women's magazines, well-dressed family members, friends, and passersby, and get some clues from Muslim fashion blogs. Below are some ideas about where to find such blogs. Shops on line are easy to find if there are not appropriate stores locally. Enjoy!


Hijab Fashion Week

Em of the fashion blog Modesty Theory originated Hijab Fashion Week (HFW) as a group blog event, with all participating and registered blogs posting on the same Muslim fashion theme on the same day. On each day, Em did a central post on her own blog with one picture from each participating blog, and the link to the full post. The result is a wonderful exploration of certain themes within Muslim fashion, and of the diversity and creativity of Muslim dress. The category HFW on Em's blog now numbers 20 posts, including the lead up, followup, and future developments posts relating to HFW.

Below are the aggregate posts with their links to all participant posts for each day of HFW 2010:

HFW Day 1--Money on My Mind: Work Wear
HFW Day 2--Celebrate Good Times: Eid
HFW Day 3--Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: Girls Night Out
HFW Day 4--Vacation is Where I Wanna Be: Vacation / Travel Wear
HFW Day 5--Flavor of the Week[end]: Weekend Wear
HFW Day 6--Lovestoned: Date Night with the Hubby (or future hubby)
HFW Day 7--The Cup of Life: Running Errands

Vote For Your Favourite Muslim Fashion Blog!


SistersWhoBlog is hosting Awards in a number of blog categories: Arts and Crafts; Fashion; Food; General; Islamic; Motherhood; New; Teen. All the nominees are listed and the voting in place on the side bar to the main post. The About section explains more, and there are tabs to show the entries by region.

Voting is open December 29-31, 2010; and, the winners will be announced on January 1, 2011.

The nominees in the fashion blog category include some of those linked above or in Hijab Fashion Week, and some new ones.

Check them out and vote!

Independent Fashion Bloggers is another potential source of fashion blogs of all sorts.

Related Posts:

Medical Cover: Abaya/Lab Coat/Scrubs
On Choosing Hijab in a Bi-Cultural Interfaith Family
Hemlines: Fashion, Modesty, Abaya Wearing, and Cross-Cultural "Wars" (Conjugal and Other)
October 27, 2010--Global Pink Hijab Day! Muslims and Breast Cancer Awareness

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

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