As far as portmanteaus go, the Burkini packs in the ultimate clash of civilizations. It brings together the burqa and the bikini in one innocuous-looking garment, a fully covered swimsuit, similar to the kind worn by scuba divers.
In France, the Muslim swimwear has become a trigger point, a symbol of fraught racial, religious and cultural divides. This week, three French resort towns, including Cannes, banned the Burkini from their beaches. The offending garment, said the Cannes mayor, fails to respect ‘good morals and secularism ’. The Burkini first hit the headlines in 2011, when celebrity chef Nigella Lawson was photographed wearing one on an Australian beach, an incident dubbed by the tabloid press as ‘the great cover up’. Cut to March 2016: British retail giant, Marks and Spencers, decided to stock a Burkini line, drawing both praise and criticism.
The target customers for this line were Britain’s large population of Muslim women, who want to shop for fully-covered, yet functional and fashionable clothing. This is the demographic which as the heart of the modest fashion movement.
Of hijabs, high-heels and handbags
Farheen Naqi knows style. Her Instagram account, with a following of more than 23.2k, is one stunning shot after another. In one shot, the tall and willowy fashion blogger poses in a salmon pink abaya jacket over high-waisted trousers and heels. In another, she pairs a button-down blue cambric shirt with a khaki maxi skirt and a white hijab.
Farheen is perhaps the most popular face of the modest fashion movement in India, where young women are slowly experimenting with it. In 2014, she started her blog, Filter Fashion, as her “personal challenge” to style pieces in modest, yet modern ways.
“I wanted it to serve as a platform where I hoped girls like me could…see that it is possible to dress modestly and still be fashionable,” says Farheen, who shuttles between Mumbai, Lucknow and Seychelles.
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Across the country, in Chennai, 26-year-old Ayesha Nawab, a trained pilot and English language teacher, decided to make her Instagram account public, showcasing her zany mix of colour, headscarves and prints. “I got requests asking where I got my scarves from,” says Ayesha, who goes by Miss_Nawabi on social media, “For girls coming out of the abaya zone, this was totally new.”
The ‘abaya zone’ is an apt description of what modest dressing traditionally meant for Muslim women. In India, the preferred mode of modesty was a black burqa, consisting of a robe and a niqab which you tied under the chin. In later years, all-season polyester replaced cotton burqas, and you could buy jazzed up versions with embroidery or sequins.
The throwing back of the niqab, the signature move of heroines in Bollywood’s Muslim socials of the 1960s, such as Mere Mehboob and Chaundvi ka Chand, is a thing of the past.
Other women opted for chadars over their salwar-kameez or dupattas covering their heads. Hijabs and abayas are fairly recent additions to the closet of Muslim women in India.
Social media has flattened the fashion landscape. Young girls wanting to experiment with modest dressing can find tons of #hijabinspiration and #chicmuslimahs on Instagram and Pinterest. On YouTube, there are hundreds of hijab tutorials – turbans, knotted on the side, stacked like a beehive with multiple folds.
“I think it’s great that we’re coming to a place where modest dressing for Muslims isn’t being restricted to one thing,” says Farheen.
The modesty movement
Globally, modest fashion is a well-documented trend, first popularised by Middle-Eastern bloggers and second or third-generation Muslims in the US and UK, often called hijabistas.
According to Junayd Miah, founder of Islamic Design House, an online portal, the movement traces its origins to the post-9/11 environment. After the backlash that followed, many Muslims in Europe and America started actively embracing markers of their ‘Islamic’ identity. In the face of hostility, donning the hijab became a political move for some. For others, it was a search for religious roots, a harking back to a more conservative interpretation of Islam.
Out of these tumultuous cultural negotiations, the modesty movement was born.
“This resulted in young Muslim women, in particular, wanting to dress in accordance with their faith,” says Junayd, “But at the same time they wanted to remain fashionable & stylish…as part & parcel of their western identity.”
Junayd launched the Islamic Design House in 2005. At that time, all that was available in the bleak landscape was the quintessential black burqa, imported from the Gulf. “These designs did not speak to our sisters as we had grown up with mainstream Western fashion brands,” he says.
The business of modesty
Over the years, niche e-commerce sites have mushroomed to cater to the growing demand. Brands such as Haute Hijab, Inayah, Ruh, Shukr Clothing stock collections aimed at the modest Muslim consumer. According to the 2015-2016 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report , Muslim consumers spend an estimated $230 billion on clothing. It wasn’t long before both couture and high-street brands took note. In September 2015, popular high-street brand H&M made a hijab-clad Mariah Idrissi the face of their new campaign . This January, Dolce and Gabbana launched a line of luxury hijabs and abayas , complete with their trademark lace detailing and embellishments.
The D&G collection is aimed specifically at the petro-dollar rich Gulf countries, but other hotspots include Turkey, which hosted the first ever modest fashion week last year, Indonesia and the Indian sub-continent.
In 2015, the Islamic Design House launched a dedicated website in India, due to the large following and requests made on their Facebook page. Their best-selling item? “The denim jilbab,” says Junayd. “One of the reasons is that denim is strongly associated with western fashion and a symbol of modernity.”
Homegrown innovation is catching up. Ayesha and her sisters have started Mysha, a by-request service to customise hijabs. Farheen has started sourcing scarves for a new online venture, tentatively, and quite aptly called ‘Little Black Hijab’.
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This Ramzan, Chennai-based friends and new hijab wearers, 23-year-old Nayaab Shawl and Shanaz Rukhsana, launched Hayaah Hijabs. Their own experience of the hot and humid Chennai weather informs their collection.
“In our climate, you can’t wear a lot of layers. We focus on wearability and style,” says Nayaab.
Their collection includes modern riffs on the hijab, including a pick-and-wrap line with bright colours and little pom-poms as well as a glam line in satin with pearl detailing.
“Our motive is to make hijab fun,” says Shanaz.
The hijab debate
This idea – that there is no contradiction in mixing faith with fun and fashion – is at the core of the modest fashion movement. You can be fashionable and religious, it proclaims.
But it is difficult to talk of modest fashion without getting caught in the crosshairs of the furious debate surrounding it. On one hand, feminism is about respecting choice. The Burkini ban, as well as France’s earlier ban on the burqa, violate this principle. But how much is choice influenced and conditioned by family pressure and socio-religious diktats? And, more troubling, does the modesty movement normalise the idea that women should cover up, that they have to keep themselves hidden from the eyes of lusty men?
According to Sabina Yasmin Rahman, a PhD scholar at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, the debate cannot be reduced to a competition between my liberation and yours. “Many women argue that in a society which sees them as sexual objects, covering up liberates them. By this definition, the opposite is true as well,” she says.
“Wearing the hijab can be a choice, but you have to acknowledge that not wearing it is not a choice for many, many women,” she adds.
Ayesha says she has fielded criticism from both sides – strangers who question her decision to wear the hijab and others who deem her clothing not modest enough. “When I was 18, my family wanted me to wear the burqa. I hated it. It was a cultural influence, not out of my own willingness.” At 22, she chose to wear the hijab. “Eventually, you have to figure out how important it is you,” she says.
Both Nayaab and Shanaz concur. Their ‘hijab moment’ was a gradual result of reading up about Islam, not a family compulsion. “I still don’t wear the hijab every day. I am growing towards it,” says Shanaz.
The world of modest fashion is in a state of constant churn. Along with the Burkini, abaya gowns, hooded jilbabs, hijab jewelry are all a reality. Nor is the innovation restricted to clothing.
Junayd has his sights set on updating the traditional prayer mat. “We have partnered up with Visual Dhikr, a contemporary Muslim artist and created a collection that will be really cool,” he says. “Think prayer mat meets interior décor.”