Wrapped up in style

By Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson
Special to the Los Angeles Times
June 6, 2010

Shopping websites, magazines and blogs are catering to Muslim American women who want to look fashionable while dressing modestly and staying true to their faith.

On a recent, sunny Saturday in Orange County, 26-year-old California native Sama Wareh stood outside her apartment complex wearing a textured, brown cotton hijab, held in place by an extra-large safety pin, decorated with tiny, dangling, multicolored replicas of Russian nesting dolls. On either side of her face, she had gathered the ends of the head scarf in Native American-style laced-leather ponytail holders purchased nearby at Knott's Berry Farm. Her dress, an Empire-waisted vintage find with gray, blue and white stripes and short puffed sleeves, was supplemented for modesty with a slim, long-sleeved gray T-shirt and thick gray leggings. On her feet, she wore a pair of knee-high, naturally distressed, square-toed boots.

Organic and entirely unself-conscious, her look had the kind of effortless cool that might make a blind follower of fashion envious.

A field naturalist, traveling scientist and fine artist — as well as a Muslim — Wareh draws inspiration from a variety of sources, frequently mixing it up with Renaissance dresses, cowboy hats, kilts and bold jewelry. Her personal sense of style is so unique that she's been asked by non-Muslims if what she's wearing "is allowed."

Beyond basic black

When most non-Muslims think of hijab, a stereotype of a woman in a voluminous, black dress and head scarf is the most common image conjured. But over the last three years, there's been a flood of websites, blogs and online retailers catering to religious Muslim women like Wareh who wear hijab and love style.

Often synonymous for head scarf, hijab is actually the Islamic principle of emotional and physical modesty, as mandated in the Koran, and it applies, albeit differently in terms of dress, to both women and men.

"I've been wearing hijab since seventh grade," Wareh said. "It was my choice." Her mother, who decided to wear hijab when Wareh was young, cautioned her to wait, but she was undeterred. "When people have said to me, 'You're oppressed, you can't express yourself,' I tell them that I'm not wearing what the fashion magazines say I should be wearing. I'm wearing whatever I want."

Tayyibah Taylor, the publisher and editor in chief of Azizah Magazine, a quarterly voice for contemporary Muslim women that first published in 2000, notes that faith and beauty are not mutually exclusive.

"In Islam, hijab allows us to identify ourselves as being on a spiritual path, but we can also be on a spiritual path and have flair," she said. "The terms are not incongruent. Hijab defines us not only as Muslim women but as women. We don't want to look ugly. We just don't want to be sexually provocative. A woman's body should not be part of the public conversation."

In a marketplace where magazine subscriptions are plummeting, publications for Muslim women and girls are continuing to pop up. Muslim Girl, Sisters and MBMuslimah all hit newsstands in 2007, while the online subscription site Muslimette first appeared in November 2009.

Stylish hijabis can now order funky fashion at Rebirth of Chic, sporty loose dresses called jilbabs at Silk Route and casual day wear at Shukr. Blogs with names like Hijabulous, We Love Hijab, Muslim Style Queen, Fashionably Modest, Modest Plus and Hijabs High, which is the Muslim answer to the Sartorialist, illustrate a wide variety of clothing options while celebrating individual style.

Jokima Hamidullah, the 27-year-old woman behind the online lifestyle magazine Muslimette, as well as the clothing blog We Love Hijab, is a pioneer of sorts.

Three years ago, she became the first Muslim American to blog exclusively about fashion. Born and reared in a devout Muslim home in New Jersey, Hamidullah has always been interested in stylish clothing and never felt it interfered with her faith. When she last checked, We Love Hijab's online hit count registered about 1,000 new visitors every day.

"We usually rate between two and five on Google searches for hijab," she said. "Every day, Muslimahs from all over the world log on to the site and comment about what's posted."

Taylor sees this trend as part of the evolution of the Muslim American community.

"In America, we have a microcosm of the Muslim world," she said. "There are 80 different ethnicities. It's a cultural and spiritual buffet table. American Muslims pick and choose and create their own. Establishing hijab, as both fashion and spiritual, is part of that as well. These young bloggers and the new magazines are part of the building of a cultural architecture, and what is being created is distinctly Muslim American."

Chic beginnings

Wareh's friend Jamesa Fields Nikiema, a clothing designer and owner of the online retailer Rebirth of Chic, is Carolina Herrera to Wareh's Jean Paul Gauthier. A recent outfit included a cream-colored, mid-thigh-length, ruffled blouse, with long, bell-shaped sleeves. Her hijab was made up of layers of gossamer light, off-white fabric, shot through with gold thread, which was gently draped about her head, face and neck.

Rebirth of Chic was born out of necessity. Fields Nikiema, who is 28, converted to Islam seven years ago. Afterward, she had trouble finding modest clothing that was also stylish. Off-the-rack clothing was often too short, tight in the wrong places or, if appropriate, dowdy.

"Most of the hijab clothing that was available for Muslim women was imported from Pakistan or Arab countries," said Fields Nikiema. "I could wear it, but I'm American and I didn't feel like myself. I wanted different fabrics and a wider variety."

Fields Nikiema began frequenting showrooms in downtown L.A. and hand-picked items that were hijab-friendly. If she couldn't find what she wanted, she would sketch the item and have it made. The company's clothing meets the requirements of a diverse clientele, and Orthodox Jewish women, as well as modest Christian women, have found the site.

It was swimwear that created a conundrum for Shereen Sabet. Nine years ago, Sabet, who was raised a secular Muslim, had a spiritual awakening and decided to wear hijab. Her husband, who is also Muslim, wasn't happy about her decision but supported her. Concerned about the complications of wearing hijab and the negative attention associated with it, she struggled for six months before covering her head.

Sabet loved to scuba dive but she didn't know how to reconcile modesty with being in the water. At first, she found a solution in an expensive scuba dry suit, which wasn't form-fitting and allowed her to remain fully clothed underneath.

Shortly after that, she realized that she still couldn't go swimming in her condo's pool.

"It dawned on me that there was this situation that I never knew existed," she said. "All these Muslim women can't go swimming. Then the door opened. I thought about women with body issues and disabilities and of course other religious women, conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews. Where was the choice for women who didn't want to wear revealing bathing suits? Women want to get in the water based on their own terms, not what's available on the rack."

Swimsuit solution

When Sabet couldn't find any company interested in developing a functional, attractive suit, she set out to do it on her own and created the Southern California-based swimwear company Splashgear.

The designs are simple and ingenious. When dry, the modest pants and tops are loose but still lightly shaped. When the pieces are wet, a discreet tug allows a tiny pocket of air into the top and bottom, so the suit doesn't cling to the body. According to Sabet, sales and visits to the website doubled between the summers of 2008 and 2009.

Writer, photographer, filmmaker and fashionable feminist Mona Ebrahim sees a humorous side to hijab. She's writing a book titled "101 Reasons Why I'm Glad I Wear Hijab." She hopes it will amuse and educate, as well as convince readers that the edict is not a symbol of oppression for all Muslim women.

"I was in college when I decided to wear hijab," she said. "I was on a spiritual journey and had done a lot of soul searching. When I told my father, he cried."

Ebrahim's father, who emigrated to the U.S. from Egypt, was sure she would be hurt personally and professionally. Her mother, whom she describes as being more spiritual, understood her choice and got him to come around.

Now 33, after years of stylish modesty, Ebrahim lists a few of the 101 things she loves about her choice:

"Hijab makes me an original Inspector Gadget. It's a Bluetooth-, age- and bad-haircut hider; protects me from germs, UV, bees, slimy guys and surprises like bird poop and sudden changes in the weather; it's low maintenance, nonconformist and nuns say hi to me!"

 Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times