In her tidy Toronto condo, Sadiyya Ali pulls open a drawer in an espresso-coloured tallboy dresser that's bursting with colourful jersey and silk. Her collection of scarves, she sheepishly confesses, has spilled over to the tufted storage bench at the foot of her bed. She owns dozens, one for every possible outfit in her colour-coordinated wardrobe: cotton-candy-tinted chiffon dotted with a swirling pattern of sequins, textured blue and white jersey, matte black with subtle metal adornments.
Ali, a 24-year-old college student, spends hours each week perusing fashion blogs. But it's not the pages of Style Bubble or Jak and Jil that she ogles. The looks on mainstream fashion blogs expose a little too much t and a in Ali's view. Instead, it's Hijab Style and Hijab Revival that make her daily reading list. The latter sites feature a lot more than the standard-issue black cotton head scarves synonymous with Islam. The women behind them draw inspiration from the runways of Jil Sander and Alberta Ferretti. They lust over $400 designer cashmere scarves - to wrap around their heads instead of their necks. Most notably, these bloggers also steer clear of most matters political or religious. To them, their hijab discussions are all about style.
If there's a Venn diagram of Islamic fashion and so-called Western fashion, it has more circle overlap than one might think. Jana Kossaibati, the London blogger behind Hijab Style, which averages 2,500 visits a day, says the reactions to her blog are amusing. "It's 90 per cent good but 10 per cent is a little condescending," the 21-year-old student says. "Like, 'Oh my God! Look at these women: They like fashion! Look at what the Muslims did next!" A recent post noted how Ralph Lauren's fall runway collection, which includes dark, floral-patterned maxi dresses layered over long-sleeve tops, would fit seamlessly into a Muslimah's wardrobe.
Breathe Hijab, a blog created by Ottawa student Fae Abdulla, 26, features the same sort of collaged images of imagined outfits as its secular counterparts. In one: a pair of Acne jeans, a Michael Kors watch, a Roberto Cavalli ring and a silk scarf from the eco-label Ascension for wrapping around the head and neck. Abdulla only started wearing the hijab two years ago and was a bit apprehensive to start. "I thought, 'I love fashion. How will I wear the hijab and keep the style that I have?' " she says. After stumbling across some Islamic fashion blogs created by young Muslimahs from London to Indonesia, she understood that incorporating the headscarf into her daily look could be more of a stylistic opportunity than a burden. Abdulla was so intrigued by the ways of accessorizing the hijab and colour and textile options that she started her own online forum.
Still, fashionable Muslimahs are still waiting for hijab chic to break into mainstream fashion sites and magazines. Aiysha Malik, a Mississauga, Ont. native who now lives in Cambridge, England, started Hijabs High when she noticed a dearth of "covered women" on the revered street-style blog The Sartorialist. A world traveller, Malik has snapped many of the photos on her site herself, but also has contributors around the world, including in Toronto, Paris, Malaysia and beyond. And it's not just hijab-wearing women she focuses on: Those wrapped in niqabs, the religious garments that cover a woman's whole face save for her eyes, are also featured. A post this spring captured a woman with a mauve- and cream-coloured pashmina wrapped around her head and then draped across her face - a far cry from traditional niqabs, which are almost exclusively black, even in non-Islamic countries. "What struck me was that it wasn't what you typically think of when you cover your face," Malik remarks. "She's done it in a really trendy way."
More striking than the style of the niqab is the fact that the woman was wearing it in France. A debate over whether burkas and niqabs can be worn by women reached its conclusion last month, when the French Senate passed a bill banning face veils. The political impact of the woman's decision to wear a niqab on the streets of Paris wasn't addressed in the post - the blog, save for one entry, consists only of images and where they are snapped. "I don't know if it's divorced completely [from religion]" Malik says of her forum. Mosty, she adds, "I wanted it to be inspirational."
Malik and other Islamic fashion bloggers have received their share of e-mail trying to pull them into faith-based debates, but the issue isn't whether or not women should cover up; it's whether integrating, say, Mary Kate Olsen's style with religious wear is appropriate. "People say, 'Oh, this isn't real hijab, this isn't modest, this isn't Islamic, we shouldn't be wearing colours,' " U.K.-based Kossaibati says, adding that she decided early on to ignore such correspondence.
Just how far women can go in expressing their own personal style with hijabs is a fraught issue here as well, imam Alaa Elsayed, the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Centre of Canada in Mississauga, says. While the Koran states that Muslim men and women shouldn't wear clothes that define the contours, size or shape of the body or are see-through, there is nothing in the hallowed book that explicitly addresses colours, jewelry or makeup, he says. The imam does note, however, that Muslims are not supposed to wear la yassif wala yashiff, "the clothing of fame," which attracts attention to the body. The way that rule is interpreted is determined by local imams, he says.
"In Saudi Arabia, wearing even a black cover with some kind of glitter is considered to be, like, 'Wow, she's a lady of the night,'" Imam Elsayed says. By contrast, bright colours and embellishments are common in south and southeast Asian countries. "In Canada," the imam offers, "we have a confused generation." Because they cover their bodies and hair, he suggests, some young women go bold with their hijabs, makeup and jewelry to compensate and compete with their "uncovered" peers. "They're saying, 'I'm not wearing this because I'm ugly or I'm having a bad hair day. Here - check under the hood,'" he says, adding that it's something he understands but doesn't condone.
Ali, who owns a range of coloured MAC eyeliners in blue, purple, green, gold, silver and turqouise and a large collection of necklaces and bracelets, likens choosing and wrapping her hijab to doing one's hair: "You want it to be perfect-looking when you go out the door". Still, she says her experimentation with clothing, accessories and makeup is marked by humility. "[Being]properly covered is the main idea," she says. "But I like to look cute while I'm covered, too."