If it’s difficult to think about Islam and fashion at the same time, it’s because the two rarely intersect. One celebrates form, color and up-to-the-minute chic, the other advocates modesty and tradition.
But for American Muslim women on college campuses, trying to strike a balance between the two can be a chore that leaves them failing on both fronts, said Shabana Mir, a former visiting professor at Georgetown University with a Ph.D. in education policy and anthropology, in a recent talk in conjunction with Women’s History Month.
Named after a quote from one of her research subjects, Mir’s lecture, “ ‘You Can’t Really Look Normal and Dress Modestly’: American Muslim Undergraduate Women Constructing a Third Space on Campus,” explored how the crossroads of fashion and religion forced many coeds to educate their peers.
The talk centered on the headscarf, or hajib, worn by many Muslim women.
“This yard of fabric becomes like a stigma. . . it has certain connotations to Americans. Americans think (hajib wearers) are oppressed or that they cannot speak English, all because of a yard of fabric,” she said.
Americans on the whole, do not understand the nuances and multifaceted tracts of Islam, she said. The word itself is more likely to conjure images of al-Qaida and subjugation of women than the moderate majority. Some see headscarves as a marking that wearers are “a dupe of some masculine religion,” or a spokesperson for the entire religion.
“What the hajib does, is it forces you to become a one-dimensional person, just a religious person,” Mir said. “It puts you in a position to constantly explain your religion to everyone. And only your religion.”
Part of the problem is ignorance. With different standards for fashion in America, many don’t know the reasons behind wearing a hajib and why not every Muslim chooses to do so. Another factor is stereotyping.
“When you see a women with a hajib on TV, is it ever a women with agency, a woman who’s strong, who can speak for herself?” Mir asked.
She also talked about the prevailing strategies employed by these women, to “normalize” themselves to their peers.
“You have to make up for being modest and you do that by being a fun person, by knowing about popular culture and dropping jokes about popular culture into your conversation,” Mir said. “Some women tried to associate themselves with other or activities that made their religious identity secondary. What one girl did was to play basketball, and she became quite good at it, and she became much more defined as a basketball player than through her religion.”