The diversity of the hijab

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When I was at University and introducing myself to ideas of multiculturalism, orientalism and Samuel Huntington’s (at that time, relatively new) Clash of Civilisations thesis, I distinctly remember being surprised by the attire of a fellow student in the canteen. She wore a black hijab with a huge sequined YSL logo down the back. I remember being surprised that someone who wore such a conservative piece of clothing should also be concerned with such Western concepts as fashion labels.

Of course, that was me just being casually prejudiced on a number of different levels, and I learnt a lot from that short encounter with the back of that woman’s head. No culture or sub-culture has the monopoly on the chic, the fashionable, the well made, the comfortable; Fashion concerns are not the preserve of urban, anti-religious, counter-cultural types. And most importantly, it is possible that the hijab is more than a conservative, patriarchal garb. It can be a means for self-expression just like any other type of clothing.

Artist Sara Shamsavari’s photographs explore this last lesson. Her street photography, exhibited from tomorrow at the Royal Festival Hall, explores the myriad fashion decisions that follow a woman’s choice to wear a hijab or headscarf.

Looking at the photos, I am reminded of an article entitled ‘The Muslim Sartorialist‘ on the MENA focused blog, Aqoul:

Ever heard of the Sartorialist? It’s basically a photo blog done by a guy with a keen eye for fashion. He photographs people in trendy European and North American cities and adds little blurbs about why he thinks the outfits are interesting.

Now, I’ve always taken note of fashionable Muslim girls around me. They are masters of layering, texture and coordination. Whether it’s at the mall, a pretentious cafe or even my gym (where one stylish muhajabat routinely schools me on the treadmill), these ladies are not held back by their headscarves. Unfortunately, most of the photos you find on news sites are of women wearing frumpy hijabs, dowdy overcoats and ominous-looking ninja getups (as Lounsbury likes to call them). Western media is inundated with photos of shapeless baby-blue Afghan burkas and Saudi niqabs, so it’s hardly surprising that most non-Muslims think this style of dress is ubiquitous.

Sara Shamsavari is Iranian, which reminds me of Andrew Sullivan’s ‘Outing Iran‘ series from around the time of the 2009 elections and protests. No, not an assertion that everyone in Iran is gay. Just a recognition of the diversity of opinion and the radical art that is produced inside societies a d cultures we lazily consider to be monolithic.

There has been a lot of this kind of art in the UK in recent years. The London Olympics was a catalyst for this Kind of commissioning. One might even say that in 2013, this exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall is not particularly radical! I wonder whether London is the most appropriate place for this kind of exhibition. Perhaps it should tour to, oh, I don’t know… Bradford? Or Hampshire?

3 thoughts on “The diversity of the hijab

  1. I’ll try that again, this time without the guillemets…

    Robert,

    Are you sure that the young woman you saw wasn’t a member of the Young Socialists’ League, and as such a member of Respect ‘avant le lettre’?

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