A LITTLE over a month ago, history was made at the New York Fashion Week. An Indonesian fashion designer named Anniesa Hasibuan became the first Indonesian designer invited to participate in the event. Hasibuan also made history of a different sort: her designs were the first in the history of the New York Fashion Week to feature the hijab. Hasibuan’s models, attired in flowing gowns and pants of silk and lace, all had their heads covered. Their bodies may have been sporting high fashion, but their heads were encased in perfectly matched silk.
Expectedly, much ado was made of the ‘historic’ nature of the event in international newspapers, Hasibuan’s hijab-wearing models permitting her to stand out a bit among the glut of designers that traipsed along at the crowded event. For her part, Hasibuan said she felt thankful that it was her designs and not the hijab that were the focus of the event.
Whether her insistence was true is, of course, a matter of opinion. While it may have been new on the catwalks of New York’s famed fashion week, the concept of hijab-wearing models in fashion shows is not new. In May, the 2016 Istanbul Modest Fashion Week was held in that city. The models at that event also sported headscarves, and wore long high-necked silken gowns as they paraded up and down a catwalk. The dresses seemed a bit more conservative, a little less clingy, but they were, nevertheless, part of a fashion parade made up of all the constituent parts, models, catwalks and gawking onlookers.
The meaning of the hijab, its symbolism and signification, has completely changed.
In her native Indonesia, Hasibuan’s installation of the hijab on the catwalks of one of the world’s premier fashion events seems to have met with divided opinion. Unsurprisingly, those who do not see a conflict between showing off clothes and the modesty prescription that is supposed to underlie the hijab feted the achievement. After all, why should hijab-wearing Muslim women be left on the sidelines of fashion?
Others, the nit-picking clerical sort, focused on the sort of inanities that are a thorn in the sides of all Muslim women, the length of sleeves, the height of necklines and such (this, even though all of Hasibuan’s designs sport long sleeves and crew necks). Their objection, it seems, was not to the fact that there may be a central contradiction between wearing a hijab and treading a catwalk but rather that they (as opposed to Hasibuan’s aesthetics) could not control the designs. Theirs is a misogynistic project that would eliminate women from every sphere, generally eviscerate all their choices whether they relate to the hijab or anything else.
The Turkish event attempted to address the question of whether modesty and fashion can coexist in a more direct way. Instead of simply calling a fashion show a fashion show, which is what it was, they chose to call it the Istanbul Modest Fashion Week. The insertion of ‘modest’, it seems, was designed to overcome the contradiction at hand — the fact that the ostensible religious reason proffered for the covering of hair via the headscarf is that it detracts attention from the wearer, hence exemplifying in a literal sense a move away from the superficial to the spiritual and pious.
Words, however, are only words; while the hijab-wearing aficionados of haute couture may have bought the verbal acrobatics inherent in rendering the impermissible suddenly permissible, the rest were likely confused. If the point is to not draw attention, then strutting on a catwalk could not possibly make that claim.
The same objection could be attached to Hasibuan’s work. However, to leave the issue at that, at static definitions of what is required or not required, permissible or not permissible, is to neglect the reality of religion as a real and living thing, defined and transformed by practice.
Under this definition, both events, the Istanbul Modest Fashion Week and Hasibuan’s show in New York, reveal Muslim women’s attempts to participate in and define a global discourse where the hijab is redefined in a myriad ways. A cynical interpretation of this would point to the fact that as they join the workforce, and enjoy their increasing buying power, Muslim women want items that are creatively and artistically geared, particularly and exclusively, to them. Beautiful gowns featuring hijabs are hence responding less to religious edict and more to consumer demand.
Another interpretation would suggest that having been the subject of political (rather than spiritual) contention for several decades, the meaning of the hijab, its symbolism and signification, has completely changed. In this sense, women who wear the hijab may theoretically align themselves with the modesty precepts that were part of its original prescription, but they are really making a political statement.
The hijab, then, as it exists in the age of Modest Fashion Weeks and New York Fashion Weeks, is not so much an indicator of religious commitment as a particular political position. In Turkey, this means that the anti-secular but still aspirational classes want to show that they can wear a headscarf, be stylish, and also politically relevant and powerful. This last step has required a redefinition of the hijab not as a symbol of ascetic restraint but rather of having the potential to be as fashionable and trendy as Prada shades and Birkin bags.
Nor is Pakistan insulated from the international emergence of the hijab as a symbol of designer consumerism and political positioning. In recent decades, elite women have taken on the practice, their elaborate and stylish headgear matched with the exact silk hues of their expensive outfits. There is no restraint here, nor any argument for it, simply a statement, political and fashionable and visible to all. Undoubtedly, there are women who choose the hijab for its disavowal of the politics of consumption, its ability to insulate against the constant moral aspersions cast on women in the Muslim public sphere. New meanings do not mean that the old ones are completely erased; they remain, not on catwalks but on the margins and the sidelines.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn November 2nd, 2016