How Young Muslim Women Are Wearing Hijabs As A Feminist Statement

Introduction by Connie Wang

Feminism means many things these days, but one point that most can get on board with is that all women should feel empowered to make decisions for themselves. Whether that's choosing to get a PhD, choosing to quit a job to raise children, or choosing to never wear a dress, a woman should never feel like her decisions are being made for her by her community, family, industry, religion, or the men or women in her life. For Muslim women, the hijab has been seen by many non-Muslims as the sartorial equivalent of shackles — a tool imposed upon women by the men who share their faith to keep them hidden and subservient.

But, anyone close to modern Muslims knows that caricature of a drab, black hijab is a false one. Although there are some conservative, fundamentalist communities that impose strict interpretations of Shari'ah law, most contemporary Muslim women see the hijab as a tool to get closer to one’s faith. Some choose to wear one, some choose to forgo it, and some — like the youth in Morocco’s fashion-forward cities — have chosen to use it as a fashion tool for self-expression.
Illustrated by Aisha Yousaf.
Hijab — A headscarf wrapped in various styles that covers the head and could
be wrapped around the neck, leaving the face exposed.
Various colors, patterns, and textures can be found accentuating its style.

*Al-amira and Shayla are two hijab styling ways. The Al-amira consists of a
fitted cap with an accompanying headscarf and the shayla is a longer
scarf wrapped around the head and then held by tucking or pinning.
Copyright © 2015 by majestic disorder. Reprinted with permission of majestic disorder. All rights reserved. The following is excerpted from the fourth issue of majestic disorder, an international arts and culture magazine based in London. Edits were made for clarity and length.

In today's post-9/11 world, feminism and Islam have been misconstrued as nearly incompatible terms that are centered on the religious dress code for women. Although interpretations of the Quran vary, it’s commonly perceived that when in public, Muslim women should wear a hijab, which is loosely defined as a scarf-like veil covering the head. Crusaders of Western ideals and Arab nations balancing anti-fundamentalist sentiments have used the hijab as a political symbol of oppression, resulting in the rationale for laws throughout European and Arab countries prohibiting hijabs and their various interpretive styles to be worn in certain areas. But, in the bustling medina of Marrakech or the blossoming metropolis of Casablanca, the fashion that Muslim women wear throughout the North African country completely counteracts the tale of oppression.

The streets and squares are filled with a sea of brightly colored and intricate hijabs. From the abundant headscarves to the more conservative djellaba, the Muslim women of Morocco express their beauty and modernity through tradition with a contemporary twist that is based on choice, rather than submission.

“Moroccan clothing has been dramatically changed with Westernization,” says Meriem Rawlings, a 42-year-old fashion designer and owner of the shop Hanout, in Marrakech. “Nowadays, people wear normal ‘Western’ clothes in their everyday lives, but what is interesting is that Moroccan ladies have retained their love of traditional clothing. They shop for fabrics and make their djellaba with the help of traditional stylists, and the djellaba follows Western fashion when it comes to colors and choice of material.”

There are various ways and styles a hijab can be adorned, which is dependent upon one’s Islamic denomination, school of Islamic jurisprudence, and local custom. The largest Islamic sects are Sunni and Shiite, and each have approximately four main schools of jurisprudence and all have vastly different interpretations on how a hijab should be worn. However, Muslim women that wear a hijab do so as a symbol of their piety, explains Mouna El-Ogbani, who works as a project leader at Al-Hasaniya Moroccan Women’s Centre in London. “A hijab is worn to not attract men to you or to your beauty,” she says. “You keep your beauty to your husband. And, if you’re not married, then just to yourself. In private, in your home, you have the opportunity not to wear your modest clothing.”

It was only since 2002 that El-Ogbani began wearing a hijab herself, which was done as a personal choice. “I felt that I wanted to cover my hair and that I wanted to take my religion more seriously. I used to pray often and embrace all the other religious aspects, but I wasn’t wearing a hijab. To wear a hijab is to be more religiously devoted. It is a statement,” she says.
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Illustrated by Aisha Yousaf.
Djellaba — A mid-length of ankle-length, loose-fitting robe that is worn over a
woman's undergarments, normally a kaftan. It's a normal day-to-day wear
not reserved for special occasions. It may also be made with hoods or worn with
hijabs.
Over the last decade, the Moroccan government has been increasingly setting forth initiatives to be more supportive of women’s rights. In 2004, per the mandate of King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s parliament passed numerous sweeping reforms to the Moroccan family law, called the Moudawana. These reforms included the women’s right to divorce, rules of inheritance, and raising the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18. Morocco’s ministry of education also controversially decided to remove an image of a girl wearing a hijab from school textbooks in 2006. “The headscarf for women is a political symbol,” education ministry official Aboulkacem Samir reportedly said. “We in the ministry must be very careful that the books are fair to all Moroccans and do not represent just one political faction.”

Despite these governmental initiatives, the hijab has always been a choice among Moroccans. The government had never passed legislation declaring a ban on the hijab like its neighboring Arab country of Tunisia. But, the hijab has remained a staple among youth culture in Morocco. The spirited, younger generations are enthusiastically fusing together their traditional heritage with the modernity of the Western world.

In the bustling streets of Marrakech’s medina, young women can be seen wearing niqabs colored in fuchsia and trimmed with delicate rose pink beads. The contradiction of attractive color and concealing cloth is most resonant to younger Moroccans, whose definitions of modesty have come to be interpreted by a desire to retain personal expression. “More young women are wearing a hijab because traditional wear is now more fashionable,” explains 20-year-old Siham Ouhmad from the western Moroccan city of Agadir.

The plethora of sartorial options and versatility of the hijab has elevated the traditional garment to a fashion staple where women will put as much thought and consideration to its outfit compatibility as they would their shoes, jewelry, and accessories. “The al-amira and shayla are two of the most popular ways of styling a headscarf [hijab],” explains Siham. “But, styles such as ‘hippie’ and ‘classic’ are the most popular for young wearers.” The al-amira consists of a fitted cap with an accompanying headscarf, and the shayla is a longer scarf wrapped around the head and then held by tucking or pinning. The various modern bohemian styles of “hippie” are fashioned by layers of colorful and printed fabric, which is then draped loosely around the head and shoulders. The simpler “classic” style is more refined and elegant, tightly fashioned around the head and neck in a way that is reminiscent of the glamorous headscarves of the 1960s.
Illustrated by Aisha Yousaf.
Khimar — A long, cape-like veil that covers the head and neck that sometimes
can stretch to the waist or slightly shorter. It also covers the back at the same
length as the front; the face remains entirely uncovered.

*Another similar version of this is the chador, which is common in Iran.
After the Arab Spring in 2011, the hijab has taken on new light in Moroccan public demand for more strident legislation, since the 2004 amendments were no longer justified as providing sufficient rights for women. The scale of protests among the approximate 20 Arab countries inciting pro-democracy reforms and citizen freedoms varied widely in 2011, which also included the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen being completely overthrown. The resulting impact felt in Morocco, however, was minor in comparison, as its government implemented seemingly swift reforms. The constitutional reforms by referendum were initiated in July of 2011, which included Article 19. The addendum addresses matters of violence and discrimination against women, instating equality between genders.

However, the implementation of Article 19 has been slow and met with subsequent controversy. Numerous protests in the capital city of Rabat have occurred. “Women play a very important role in shaping Moroccans’ understanding of gender equality,” explains Mona Badri, a 26-year-old from the central Moroccan city of Goulmima. “Women activists’ voices haven’t penetrated the walls of the parliament yet, but they do not give up. Their hopes will not be dashed.”

“We live in a secular country, which is frustrating,” says Sahar Echadli, a 17-year-old student from Fez, Morocco’s third most populous city. “We care for other cultures more than our own. Women cannot get jobs in parliament, in government, or in the media if we are wearing religious clothing. What happened to our religious rights?” Badri passionately echoes this lament over job discrimination: “My sister was the only veiled girl who was studying in a media center for two consecutive years, and she was marginalized and discriminated against because she was wearing her hijab.”

Religious discrimination in the workplace remains a constant point of contention in Moroccan media, such as last year when Malika Bennour, a former teacher at Don Bosco School in the city of Kenitra, filed a complaint against her former employer after its attempt to have her remove her headscarf in the workplace.

European governments have initiated bans on hijabs due to their links to alleged oppression and fundamentalism. In 2011, Belgium and France prohibited niqabs and burqas in public institutions; Italy later followed suit. These bans also coincided with the protests during the Arab Spring. Turkey, however, which has been a historically secular state, lifted the ban on hijabs within state institutions in 2013.
Illustrated by Aisha Yousaf.
Niqab — A fully-veiled robe that covers the entire body, including the head,
with only a slight slit exposed for the eyes. It should be colored in black
as this is the most traditional standard.

*Another more conservative version of this is the burka that has a permeable
screen covering the eye slit. It's seen in Afghanistan, while other countries
have completely banned it.
Hana Bakkali of Miami, Florida, was born to Moroccan parents and frequently visits Morocco; she continues to witness the flourishing evolution of the hijab in both countries and reverently displays her religious devotion when in public. “It used to be that Moroccan women would wear mainly black and deep colors, as to not attract attention,” says 21-year-old Bakkali. “Women are becoming more comfortable with wearing different colors and their style is evolving. It’s starting to become more acceptable than it was, especially in Marrakech. In America, I choose to wear black because I feel more traditional.”

Bakkali began wearing the hijab at the age of 17, having been influenced by her growing devotion to her religion. “I felt like life’s temporary. Life is not forever, so I wanted to follow my faith and stick to it rather than just say I’m a Muslim.”

As Moroccan women take authority over their right to dress religiously, young women continue to push the envelope in fusing together tradition with contemporary Western life. “The younger generation tends to wear tight jeans and short tops, and sometimes your bottom is not covered, and that is a contradiction,” explains El-Ogbani, who was born in Tangier, Morocco and frequently visits her home country from London. “If you’re wearing a hijab, you should be covered, your body shape shouldn’t be shown.”

Echadli agrees about her generation's approach to modernized modesty: “I think it’s so inappropriate, because it is not traditional of Islam to wear a modesty-respecting hijab with skinny jeans that show off your figure.”

Marrakech acts as a brilliant microcosm to describe the duality of parallel lifestyles existing alongside one another. The walled and maze-like quarters of the medina are filled with the vibrancy of handcrafted fabrics with traditional garments suspended from booth's opened doors. Just adjacent to the legendary souks are the shining glass fronts of the shopping district that display the latest trends from European brands adorned on mannequins. Balancing these contrasting lifestyles in the contemporary world provides the Moroccan female ample opportunities not only for unique sartorial expression, but personal empowerment, as well.

Despite regressive social reforms and hesitancy in government to address problems with action, Moroccan women are not voiceless. “I choose to wear the hijab because it is part of my identity as a Moroccan Amazigh [Berber] woman. It is my way to tell the world that I am a hijabi and I can carry out my daily activities like any other woman,” argues Badri. “It covers my head, but it does not cover my mind. I am a hijabi, and I am free, and nobody could interfere between me and who created me.”
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