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how the hijab went from religious garment to identity marker

This piece was originally published on

When I was 15, I went through a phase of wanting to wear the hijab to school. I was raised in a Muslim family, and as a teenager struggled with my own identification with faith. At that point, I decided it was all or nothing—I was going to try really hard to take on my identity as a Muslim Australian, or I was going to confront the other potential reality: that I didn't feel like a Muslim at all.

So each Friday, the holy day for Muslims, I draped a blue hijab that matched my uniform and tried to own my identity despite the whispering and confusion of my classmates. There are many ways to drape a hijab - but some ways are more traditional than others. As a teenager, I only knew the traditional way of draping the scarf, and it was a style that didn't really suit me - it make my head look big, my glasses stand out and I never really felt comfortable.

It turned out that my discomfort around wearing the hijab was just one aspect of a larger, more general unease I was feeling: I eventually came to the conclusion that I didn't truly believe in Islam. It was a journey that took a long time. To this day, assumptions about the hijab and the Muslim women who wear it are still rarely based in fact. It's a complex issue that no one person can summarise, but ultimately, at its simplest, the hijab is a symbol of a Muslim woman's faith, and modesty.

Then, a few years ago, I noticed my Facebook feed flooded with videos and images of Muslim women wearing amazing outfits, their hijabs draped in unique and fashionable ways that didn't just identify them as Muslims, but showed a certain flair and sense of style that was incredibly exciting.

They were self-proclaimed Mipsterz, or Muslim hipsters from America, and their viral video showed women skateboarding, fencing and hanging out in awesome outfits with their hijabs tied in more casual, stylish ways than I'd seen before. Around the same time, in 2014, I noticed other Muslim Australian women tying their hijabs in an almost turban-style, with trailing ends and bright colours. Rather than relying on traditional styles, young Muslim women were restyling the garment to not just act as a symbol of their faith, but to demonstrate their individuality and style.

These new styles of hijab sat more easily alongside a western wardrobe. Suddenly, the hijab looked like something I could have worn as a teenager to school and been complimented on, instead of creating confusion for my classmates who saw the garment as something that confined, rather than liberated.

I firmly believe that Muslim women are free to choose to wear the hijab or not, and they make that choice based on their faith. It's personal decision, not open for comments from society at large. That said, there have also been some interesting critiques of the hijab by Muslim women living in the diaspora. They've pointed out there's a gender inequality that can be seen at the root of the traditional garment.

Whatever its roots may be, the reinterpretation of the Hijab by Muslim women living in migrant communities points to the importance of cultural clothing as a signifier of both belonging and difference. The way we dress says something about us, and cultural clothing speaks particularly loud, suggesting to other people where we're from and as a result, what we might believe.

As a migrant woman, the one aspect of my appearance I can never escape is my skin colour, and I often have to justify or explain to people why I'm here in Australia. The question, "where are you from?" comes at me from numerous directions, relentlessly, and I can't choose to avoid it because my skin colour invites it. Similarly, Muslim women who wear the hijab regardless of their ethnic background are opening themselves to questions and assumptions when living in countries where the hijab isn't the norm—like Australia. For young people growing up as second generation migrants, this can present a particularly difficult reality as they try to bridge the gap between their two cultures.

The reinterpretation of the hijab by Mipsterz and young Muslim women across the diaspora speaks to this: the hijab becomes not just a religious garment but also a further identity marker, showing that the wearer is from a particular cohort of Muslims who own their western identities and their religious ones.

Fashion has embraced this group of women. Uniqlo have a special line created in collaboration with designer Hana Tajima that is specifically aimed at Muslim women who blend the modern with the traditional; and sites like Haute Hijab sell fashionable hijabs that push the boundaries of what wev expect the garment to look like.

These modern versions of the hijab are not always accepted from within the Muslim community. The Mipsterz were criticised for displaying Muslim women behaving "without modesty" and dressing in a way that conservative Muslims would consider forbidden. Even moderate Muslims claimed the video pandered to American stereotypes. As a former Muslim woman, who tried to find a bridge between the western culture I grew up in and the norms of the religion I was born into, the evolution of the hijab through fashion gives me a glimpse into another kind of life—one where I could have been both Muslim and Australian without having to choose between the two.

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