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Hijabistas: Inside the World of Muslim-American Fashion

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Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

Hijabista. The word -- which fuses "hijab" and "fashionista" -- gained traction a few years ago when young Muslim women around the world realized they could follow the Islamic rules for modest dressing without stifling their need for creative expression. The word "hijab" literally means veil -- but when you say hijab, it doesn't necessarily mean the veil a woman wears over her head, although "hijab" is used to describe the head scarf as well. Generally, however, "hijab" means veil in the sense of donning a modest demeanor internally and externally. Islam requires women to loosely cover every part of their body except for their hands, feet and face, revealing very little of the body. There are variations in the way these Islamic tenets are interpreted, depending on which part of the world you live. In the Arab Gulf region, scarves are worn in the Khaleeji style -- loosely, and big. Egyptian women wrap multiple scarves around their heads to create a multicolored look. In Afghanistan, women wear the burqa, which covers every part of a woman's body except the eyes.

In the past, nothing has ever stopped Muslim fashion aficionados from wearing designers outfits beneath their loose-fitting caftans, or abayas (a friend's mother says wealthy women from Saudi Arabia in the 1980s frequently wore the latest Oscar de la Renta dresses under their traditional dress). But these days, fashion-forward women realize that it's possible to mix and match not just traditional Muslim garb with mainstream fashion. U.K. native Barjis Chohan, Vivienne Westwood's protege, is probably the most visible designer for contemporary Muslim fashion, producing high end -- yet modest -- clothing for Muslim women who like the sophisticated look. But many local designers are also finding ways to fuse their beliefs with their sense of style--and make money out of it. (And why not? As the Guardian says, "the global Muslim fashion market is worth $96 million.")

The U.S. is finally catching up. Muslim-American designers are making headway locally. Underwraps, the first fashion modeling agency for Muslim women, launched in New York last year. Dian Harumi, one of the agency's models, splits her time between Los Angeles and New York City. She said, "Muslim fashion is changing. It's bold and it makes us more stylish, but is still under Islamic law."

In Irvine last Sunday, hijabistas from all over Southern California converged for a rare fashion show. Fashion Fighting Famine was started in 2007 by a group of students at the University of California, Irvine. The annual event "used fashion as a vehicle to raise funds for charitable causes, and now we're a full-fledged organization that's pending nonprofit status," says Asmaa Hassanein, the creative director of Fashion Fighting Famine.

Previous beneficiaries include the Ilm Foundation, (which works to eliminate poverty and homelessness in Southern California) and the Widow's Cooperative Program in Mali, (which provides micro-financing for widowed women and their families). This year, Fashion Fighting Famine benefits One Laptop Per Child, whose mission is to educate the world's poorest kids by providing them with laptops with Internet access and up-to-date software.

As an organization, Fashion Fighting Famine seeks to promote entrepreneurship, community empowerment, faith, art and sisterhood. At Sunday's women-only event, the group successfully did just that.

Held at the Pacific Ballroom at UCI, the night had elements of high-end fashion, feminism, fundraising and fun. Women -- immaculately made up, and beautifully dressed in every style of modest fashion -- in Diane Von Furstenberg maxis, six-inch Balenciaga stilettos, Fendi scarf as a hijab -- milled about, checking out the bazaar at the lobby before the fashion show started.

When the fashion show started to the mad thump of what sounded like Florence and the Machine's "You Got the Love" XX remix, the crowd cheered and clapped as the models ramped up and down the runway. On display? Funky beaded abayas, acid-washed head scarves, maxi dresses and more by local designers such as Fountain Valley's Vela, Irvine's Mohajababes, Singapore via San Diego's SixteenR and Marena y Sol (which is based out of Newport Beach and Dubai).

Nida Chowdhry, Fashion Fighting Famine's operations director, said the designers invited to present their clothes promote the overall value of modesty. "But we understand that our audience has different views on what it means to be modest; some have a more conservative outlook, and some more liberal," she added. The clothes, therefore, were as diverse as the audience was: "The goal is to show that there are modest outfits that can appeal and be tailored to a variety of personal stylistic preferences," she added.

Vela, a local company founded by sisters Marwa Atik and Tasneem Sabri, illustrates this diversity. Vela sells traditional abayas, scarves and long coats, applying the general rules of Muslim modesty and hijab to their designs. "But we put a Western twist to it," Sabri said. "As American Muslims, we don't want to dress the way a girl in Turkey or the United Arab Emirates would. We have our own sense of fashion and style that is inspired by runways and the culture we live in," she said. Vela's handmade hijabs incorporate current trends: Victorian pleating, zippers and lace--definitely not "grandma scarves," if you know what I mean. Sabir said of their aesthetic, "We feel that every girl should be comfortable in her outfit choice as it is an expression of her individuality."

It's a sentiment Raghad Qabay and Huda Herwees, both 16, can agree on. The two have been going to Fashion Fighting Famine since they were 11 years old. "This is the only fashion show for Muslim girls [here in SoCal]," Qabay said. And the show is definitely eye-opening for a lot of Muslim American girls. Herwees says it's definitely inspiring. "You'd think there wouldn't be a way to express our creativity [in hijab]...But just because you're wearing a scarf doesn't mean you have an excuse to dress boring."

For others, Fashion Fighting Famine was also a way to bond with other hijabistas with the same faith. Dressed in a pleated silver Forever 21 maxi, a mint green G Stage jacket and hot pink G Stage peep toes, Zamzam Abdulwahid, 23, a first-time Fashion Fighting Famine attendee, said, "I came for the cause but I loved it because of the fashion."

Abdulwahid, who migrated to the U.S. from Somalia when she was 9, said she never felt creatively limited by Islamic law. "I have as much access to clothes as everyone else," she said, proudly showed me her massive gold timepiece. (It was Michael Kors.) For her, fashion was a way to show her faith. "I love colors and I love bright clothes, but I think being modest is beautiful. It shows that I have a strong faith, and I want to wear the scarf because it reminds me of God."

Fashion Fighting Famine 2012. © Fashion Fighting Famine. Photo: Herra Iqbal
Fashion Fighting Famine 2012. © Fashion Fighting Famine. Photo: Herra Iqbal

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