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FASHION: Being Muslim, female and chic

08 December 2007
undefinedI want to begin by giving my thanks to Dave Lucas who has invited me as a guest writer in his blog. I will be discussing the aspects of being an Arab living in North America since a young age.

FASHION: Being Muslim, female and chic
This is a guest post by Ismat Mangla, the editor-in-chief of Nirali magazine.
Being a Muslim woman in the West isn’t easy—and if you practice some form of purdah (covering), it can be especially tricky. You want to fit in and assert yourself as a proud, educated, modern woman, but throw on some extra clothes and a headscarf and you might as well be sporting a neon sign on your head that screams, “I’m Muslim! I’m DIFFERENT!” And there are plenty of people who add another meaning to that sign—“She’s oppressed! She can’t think for herself!” (In 2004, Michigan Radio profiled Zoe Piliafas, a college student who donned a burqa for a few months and decided that it did make her feel oppressed. Some Muslim women disagree with her assessment.)
So I was excited to see today’s New York Times piece, “We, Myself and I,” on the challenges Muslim American women face when it comes to merging modesty and style. I’ve been there—I practice purdah, but I also don’t want to leave the house looking like I could not care less about my appearance.
The story leads with a mention of Aysha Hussain, a Pakistani-American magazine writer, who wants to follow fashion but also wants to adhere “to the tenets of her Muslim faith”:
Ms. Hussain has worked out an artful compromise, concealing her curves under a mustard-tone cropped jacket and a tank top that is long enough to cover her hips.
In addition to Hussain, reporter Ruth La Ferla cites various examples of American Muslim women who adapt Islam’s modesty mandate to their lifestyles. In fact, there’s even a new magazine called Muslim Girl, which caters to American teenagers and covers the fashion scene from a Muslim perspective. (See this March 24 Washington Post article on the magazine, which launched in January and has a circulation of 40,000.) Of course, it’s a perpetual balancing act:
In purely aesthetic terms, the devout must work to evolve a style that is attractive but not provocative, demure but not dour—friendly to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
And according to La Ferla, while there are a few Web sites such as and that offer stylish duds for modest Muslims, the market remains virtually untapped:
Today few retailers cater to a growing American Muslim population that is variously estimated to be in the range of three to seven million. “Looking for clothes that are covering can be a real challenge when you go to a typical store,” Ms. Khan [editor of Muslim Girl] said.
(La Ferla forgets to mention the growing number of companies aimed at providing modest swimwear for Muslim women; Newsweek did a piece in January 2007.)
This story isn’t the first time the mainstream media has covered the concept of “hijab chic”—Asra Nomani, who is also interviewed in La Ferla’s piece, wrote about it in Slate in October 2005, discussing a Nordstrom fashion show for “veiled and conservative” women (which La Ferla also mentions). The Washington Post covered the story first in August 2005: “Balancing Religious Sensitivity, Fashion Sense.”
What La Ferla’s piece—and most of the others I’ve read—lacks, however, is an analysis of how wearing a burqa or hijab can impact American Muslim women professionally, and how being stylish might soften that negative effect. I recently had a journalism mentor—whom I admire and respect endlessly—suggest that perhaps my headscarf may get in the way of me finding jobs in an increasingly competitive, image-driven media industry: “If I were speaking to a Christian or Jewish woman, I would also advise her not to wear a large cross or Star of David in a professional environment.” I politely told him that I could not and would not sacrifice my practice of purdah to increase my shot at a magazine job, but his advice did confirm a nagging suspicion I’ve had all along—that no matter how good my work is, there are going to be some employers who will mentally deduct points for my dress. I’m just hoping my cute bag and shoes will at least bump me up a notch.

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