Where Hijab Meets the High-Street: Modest Fashion Has Reached Indian Shores

Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India), August 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

Where Hijab Meets the High-Street: Modest Fashion Has Reached Indian Shores


India, Aug. 21 -- As far as portmanteaus go, the Burkini packs in the ultimate clash of civilizations. It brings together the burqa and the bikini in one innocuous-looking garment, a fully covered swimsuit, similar to the kind worn by scuba divers.

In France, the Muslim swimwear has become a trigger point, a symbol of fraught racial, religious and cultural divides. This week, three French resort towns, including Cannes, banned the Burkini from their beaches. The offending garment, said the Cannes mayor, fails to respect 'good morals and secularism '. The Burkini first hit the headlines in 2011, when celebrity chef Nigella Lawson was photographed wearing one on an Australian beach, an incident dubbed by the tabloid press as 'the great cover up'. Cut to March 2016: British retail giant, Marks and Spencers, decided to stock a Burkini line, drawing both praise and criticism.

The target customers for this line were Britain's large population of Muslim women, who want to shop for fully-covered, yet functional and fashionable clothing. This is the demographic which as the heart of the modest fashion movement.

Of hijabs, high-heels and handbags

Farheen Naqi knows style. Her Instagram account, with a following of more than 23.2k, is one stunning shot after another. In one shot, the tall and willowy fashion blogger poses in a salmon pink abaya jacket over high-waisted trousers and heels. In another, she pairs a button-down blue cambric shirt with a khaki maxi skirt and a white hijab.

Farheen is perhaps the most popular face of the modest fashion movement in India, where young women are slowly experimenting with it. In 2014, she started her blog, Filter Fashion, as her "personal challenge" to style pieces in modest, yet modern ways.

"I wanted it to serve as a platform where I hoped girls like me could.see that it is possible to dress modestly and still be fashionable," says Farheen, who shuttles between Mumbai, Lucknow and Seychelles.

Across the country, in Chennai, 26-year-old Ayesha Nawab, a trained pilot and religious studies teacher, decided to make her Instagram account public, showcasing her zany mix of colour, headscarves and prints. "I got requests asking where I got my scarves from," says Ayesha, who goes by Miss_Nawabi on social media, "For girls coming out of the abaya zone, this was totally new."

The 'abaya zone' is an apt description of what modest dressing traditionally meant for Muslim women. In India, the preferred mode of modesty was a black burqa, consisting of a robe and a niqab which you tied under the chin. In later years, all-season polyester replaced cotton burqas, and you could buy jazzed up versions with embroidery or sequins.

The throwing back of the niqab, the signature move of heroines in Bollywood's Muslim socials of the 1960s, such as Mere Mehboob and Chaundvi ka Chand, is a thing of the past.

Other women opted for chadars over their salwar-kameez or dupattas covering their heads. Hijabs and abayas are fairly recent additions to the closet of Muslim women in India.

Social media has flattened the fashion landscape. Young girls wanting to experiment with modest dressing can find tons of hijabinspiration and chicmuslimahs on Instagram and Pinterest. On YouTube, there are hundreds of hijab tutorials - turbans, knotted on the side, stacked like a beehive with multiple folds.

"I think it's great that we're coming to a place where modest dressing for Muslims isn't being restricted to one thing," says Farheen.

The modesty movement

Globally, modest fashion is a well-documented trend, first popularised by Middle-Eastern bloggers and second or third-generation Muslims in the US and UK, often called hijabistas.

According to Junayd Miah, founder of Islamic Design House, an online portal, the movement traces its origins to the post-9/11 environment. After the backlash that followed, many Muslims in Europe and America started actively embracing markers of their 'Islamic' identity. …

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