Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
November 2013


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Hail the Hijab

Salaam alaikum

The focus of this edition of Sultana is the engaging and thought provoking ‘Faith Fashion and Fusion Exhibition’ currently on show at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. Yes, Australian-Muslim women are claiming a spot in fashion-conscious Melbourne and Sydney and other cities around Australia, with the main focus on that much-maligned piece of material, known in most quarters as ‘the hijab’, and in less friendly quarters as ‘the veil’. 

Fashion-conscious Melburnians may be disappointed that there is not much black on show. As the rest of Australia knows and hears –ad nauseam—Melburnians adore wearing black. But elevating a black burqa into a fashion garment is challenging to say the least! Its soul mate, the niqab, frames the eyes mysteriously in a “Come Hither—No! Changed my mind. Stay away!” kinda message that quickens the pulse of many a male orientalist voyeur, still to the vast majority of observers in non-Muslim societies both coverings send different messages. 

But at the Immigration Museum, the hijab ‘headscarf’ with its varying colours, shapes, textiles, imaginative designs and verve with a capital ‘V’ is a stylish accessory to the beautiful garments on display. ‘Hail the Hijab!’ It’s come of age in Australia and after all, Melbourne women love hats. 

Let’s take off our hats and move on to the clothes. The garments float gracefully, lighting up the room, demanding attention from both sexes (let’s not quibble about that!). You might be excused for thinking they echo the famous OZ cry of ‘Loyk at moy!’ (For the benefit of overseas visitors this stems from a popular Australian comedy TV and translated means ‘Look at me!’). And why not, I ask myself. In this showcase of contemporary fashion, you are not invisible—you state your identity juggling faith and fashion adroitly. This proves a godsend for young Muslim women under twenty-five whose numbers are growing, with a third of them Australian- born 

The Elephant in the Room

Earlier this year an overseas Arab women’s delegation visited Melbourne, heads held high and uncovered (see edition May 2013). Some of our visitors were puzzled. Why were some Australian Muslim ‘sisters’ wearing hijab? The ‘elephant in the room’ puzzled them and they wanted answers, for in their eyes it seemed totally unnecessary. Some of the Australian ‘hijabis’ were taken aback but gathered their wits and replied that many Muslim women living in diaspora countries like Australia choose to ‘cover’. They argued that the scarf was an identity statement that was obviously unnecessary in Muslim majority societies.

Perhaps our Arab women guests should have asked Dr Nasya Bahfen, senior lecturer in the Journalism and Media Centre at the University of New South Wales, who in a recent ABC interview had this to say about Muslim women and their clothing choices 

(Australian Network News, 15 October, 2013)

What's emerging is a distinctly Australian Muslim style…. I think it's a microcosm of what's actually happening with the Muslim community in Australia… It is consolidating and becoming an Australian Muslim community - as opposed to a community that was say Indonesian Muslim, or Turkish Muslim, or Lebanese Muslim….

Forced to recant?

In our September 2011 edition we printed an article entitled ‘Tales from the Hijab’, which explained women’s choices and why some women covered and some did not. We have reprinted it for this current edition. I also wrote in the editorial that the least interesting feature about Australian Muslim women was the head cover.

‘The only thing good about the burqa ‘debate’ is that it turns the hijab into a chic fashion item like a beret or a cloche hat… at least during winter. But for most of the year nobody listens when Muslim women complain that the annual hijab-burqa debate is boring and irrelevant…. most Australian Muslim women do not ‘cover’ [their heads]; they don’t see it as a religious requirement; other women, however, do see it as a religious or cultural obligation—their opinion—their choice. There are also times when a headscarf serves as an identity symbol, like a T-shirt with a message. However, when your hijab-wearing sisters are being targeted you keep such arguments to yourself in the name of solidarity. (September 2011 Editorial)

For the record, the Muslim women present on the opening night of the new exhibition who don’t cover their heads were just as thrilled as their hijab-wearing sisters and just as proud of the designers and their fashion statements. There was no hint of one group being more religiously observant than the other. And it emphasised for me that ‘Oz Moz’ women define modest dress as they see fit and according to their own desires. The new fashion term ‘hijabifying’ is linked to an Islamic view of modesty in dress. Gen X and Y women are taking up this trend enthusiastically, adapting it to their own individualised notions of modesty and defining their own identity as they wish.

What we are seeing today is a new generation of Muslim designers challenging stereotypes and turning them on their heads. More power to them and their fashions on show…change is in the air and the newer, edgier fashions are stunning. 

Seasons Greetings to Everyone
Hanifa Deen
December 2013