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Islamic Dress Unveiled: Update on Hijab Fashion

MaryAlice Parks – Syrian-American beat reporter

On any given day, 22-year-old Ruann Ibrahim looks stylish. One day it’s a flowy knit dress with an oversized cardigan and white, pashmina headscarf. The next, it’s skinny jeans with a skirt on top, pinned up for “funkiness.” A dark headscarf from jersey-material to match, draped loosely with pieces hanging in front to frame her face.

Born in Brooklyn, Ibrahim graduated from Parson’s School of Fashion Design in May. Among the hipsters and bo-ho-chic, here in New York, you’d have to look closely to notice that every one of her outfits covers her from ankle to wrist.

Although Ibrahim was raised Muslim, she did not start wearing hijab – a catchall word for both a headscarf and the idea dressing modestly- until last fall. A tough break-up, paired with fashion school’s focus on the external, led her to find her faith again.

“This time on my own,” she said. “As an adult.”

Ibrahim was surprised that her mother, who covers herself, did not approve of Ibrahim’s decision to start wearing hijab. “It was so bizzare,” said Ibrahim. “There was a disconnect.”

Ibrahim said her mother was worried she would be limiting career option. Ibrahim disagreed. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? I am not going to get a job because of a scarf on my head?” she added.

Muslim scholars disagree about what the Quran says regarding appropriate dress for women. In general, the Quran says, women should not display their beauty and that both men and women should dress modestly.

For Ibrahim, her modern fashion-sense is key to her idea of modesty. She does not want to stand out. She refers to the prophet Muhammed as people-person and asks, rhetorically, “How can you relate to people if you look…” she pauses, “Unrelatable.”

If the prophet Muhammed were alive today, she says, he’d try to fit in.

“He would dress modestly like within what people are wearing today,” she said. “You don’t see people walking down the street with like a toga on, because it’s not relevant.”

So, how does a fashion-conscious young girl make it work? Ibrahim says it was a learning process. She watched YouTube videos and listened to other young Muslim girls describe how they were lopping and pinning fabrics to hang just right.

Dressing modestly can be tricky. Ibrahim does not want to wear skirts all the time, but she also does not want to look too masculine.

“If I want to wear baggy jeans and button down, I can straight up look like a dude,” said Ibrahim.  For her, finding a balance is key. “Sometimes you can wear a girly hijab with a dudey outfit. It’s nice to switch it up.”

Every Friday, Ibrahim joins over a hundred other young adults for afternoon prayers at the Islamic Youth Center at New York University. While some of the young women wear silky headscarves, most have on casual fabrics – pashminas, cottons – in a wide range of patterns. Lots of leopard print.

For Megan Putney, 30, the program director of the Muslim Consultative Network, located across the street from the center, the choice of what to wear comes down to what is practical. She buys her scarves at mainstream stores like Fashionbug and H&M. For her, the scarf just needs to stay put.

“I like to be able to move my head and go like this,” she said, shaking her head side to side with a laugh.

Putney is not alone in her search for something comfortable. Sawsan El-sehetry owns an Islamic clothing store in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. She agrees that the younger customers are leaving the more formal silks and opting for ease.

“The younger girls buy the pashmina. They love the pashmina, the love the cotton,” she said. “Because in the summer it keeps you cool, in the winter it keeps you warm.”

But for Putney, the choice to wear a headscarf is the opposite of Ibrahim. It is not just about modesty. In fact, Putney likes how the headscarves helps her stand out.

“I want people, when they see me, to say, ok she’s Muslim.” she said. “I want people to be able to differentiate me from other folks and to connect my actions to being Muslim.”

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