Monday, 14 January 2008

"It's the Fashion, Stupid!" At Least in Part: The Many Varieties of Muslim Dress

Today a fashion note. Like many people who knew little about Islam until recently, I long held the stereotype of a Muslim woman as someone drably dressed with all her charm hidden. But I’ve learned that’s not true. The first hint came in 2000 when I went to Singapore: not only were the Malay-origin Muslim women there dressed in brilliant colours, but on the way back I encountered a veiled woman from one of the Arab states whose black silk robe had a discreet design, “Gucci.”

Since then I’ve grown accustomed to seeing women in hijab, or Muslim headscarf in Montreal, encountering, for example, several young Muslim mothers at a children’s hospital where I volunteer one afternoon a week.

What I do is rock babies whose parents want to take a break, or talk to them if they need an ear to tell their troubles to. (The fact that I’ve been there and done that—Lukas had meningitis as a baby—is one of the reasons I volunteer, and I suspect it's comforting for the parents of sick kids to learn that our big, smart son who’s decided he wants to be a philosopher was once a really sick baby.)

Some of the women I meet speak neither English nor French, but two weeks ago I spent a couple of hours chatting with a young mother of Lebanese descent who wore her headscarf with jeans and a sweater. The week before that I rocked the baby of a Pakistani woman in salwar kameez, the trouser and tunic outfit worn by women of many religions in South Asia. Last week there were two mothers wearing flowing, beautifully embroidered gowns. Then yesterday the fact that these women care as much about how they look as any other woman came home when I saw a young woman waiting in line at a big supermarket wearing a gorgeous green and yellow robe with her scarf pulled across her face.

Intrigued, I went looking last night on the net see what kind of fashion advice they might be listening to. I came across a very interesting article in Slate about attempts by Nordstrom to market to Muslim women, as well as a number of great YouTube videos explaining how to wrap a hijab (including one from a pretty young redhead from Iowa who calls herself the non-Muslim hijabi) and showing the latest in modest, Muslim fashion.

Before you protest that it is degrading to women to insist they cover their hair and bust, let me remind you that 50 years ago a woman could not enter a Roman Catholic church with her head uncovered, her arms bare or wearing trousers. Protestants were a little more flexible then, but my mother reared me to wear a hat, gloves, stockings and high heels to go shopping downtown, and to all major social occasions.

All that has changed, of course. But one thing remains: at least part of dress norms are fashion, and don’t you forget it.

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