Foreign Affairs

Hijabs and Muhajababes

Just as there is a division within Islam between Sunni’s and Shites, a fashion divide has splintered Muslim women into three factions. On one side are those Muslim women who are true believers. Around the world — in hijab hotspots — these traditionalists are fighting for their right to wear head scarves as expressions of their religious piety. Caught in the middle — sometimes in the crossfire — are Muslim women who live in countries with issues on what constitutes national identity. On the opposite end of the spectrum are a new generation of young Muslim women known as “Muhajababes,” rebels who cover up to be cool, but hide their true selves behind their veils.

Their stories may surprise you.

In Iran this year the fashion police have stepped up their daily patrols. This special police detail scours the parking lots of Iranian malls looking for fashion offenders. An improperly dressed Muslim woman in Ahdmadinee Land is lucky if she gets away with a warning for having a bad hijab. If she is caught driving in unsuitable Islamic attire, her car can be impounded.

Things can get a little more radical in Pakistan. A woman provincial government minister was shot dead by a fellow who didn’t think her head was covered properly. He claimed the fabric of her hijab was far too transparent.

Hayrunisa Gul, the wife of a candidate for the Presidency of Turkey, has taken a lot of heat for wearing a proper hijab. Turkey has taken great pains to establish its society along scrupulously secular lines, so some folks are horrified at the thought of a First Lady with a hijab. But Mrs. Gul is adamant about being thoroughly modern. As she said to a reporter from The Economist: “My scarf covers my head, not my brain.” For the record, both Turkey and Tunisia have banned women with hijabs from working in government positions.

The communist government of Yugoslavia wouldn’t tolerate them, but headscarves are now being worn in post-war Bosnia. They are giving rise to old ethnic conflicts in areas populated by Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Sounds like a job for Iranian-style fashion police as opposed to UN Peace Keepers.

On the Champs Elysees, Muslim women stroll by in both the traditional black and pastel colored chadors (full length outer garb in addition to head coverings), but like state students in Turkey and Tunisia, Muslim school girls in France are not allowed to wear hijabs. While they were at it, the French also banned any other form of religious dress or symbolic accessories, like those trendy crucifixes.

In Canada, wearing a headscarf in public schools is also forbidden on the grounds that it challenges “Canadian/French patriotism,” and apparently sports sensibilities too. In mid- June, a team of Muslim girls dropped out of a national tae-kwon-do championship tournament because they were told their hijabs must be removed.

Last October, Jack Straw, Leader of the British House of Commons, while neutral on hijabs, felt compelled to share that Muslim women who wore full veils made him uneasy. They also bedevil London bus and taxi drivers forced to brake abruptly for fully veiled women who can’t see well enough to safely cross city streets. Sometimes, they don’t brake fast enough. Ouch.

Which brings us to the controversial book, "Muhajababes", (Constable and Robinson Publishers, UK, June 2006) written by BBC news producer and print journalist, Allegra Stratton. You just have to love that title, even though she didn’t coin the word.

In her mid 20’s, British born Stratton learned some Arabic and began researching the lives of her age compatriots in the Middle East. One of the first things she learned is how many of them there are. 250 million to be exact. Over 60% of Arabs are 25 or younger.

Stratton recalls the moment when, while driving around (pre-war) Beirut with a friend named Darah, they encountered two girls who were “cigarillo thin and Coco Chanel chic with small and tight black hijabs to match their outfits. Darah called them “muhajababes.”

In Arabic, “muhajabah” simply means one who veils. Stratton was soon to learn that these young women were being pulled — more aptly positioning themselves — between piety and secularism. They wear the veil not out of religious devotion or as a political statement, but merely because it’s trendy. Stratton wrote: “The meaning of “muhajababe” was pretty obvious. These were ostensibly traditional girls, but with a surprising, sassy, modern twist.”

Digging a little deeper, she discovered just how modern Muhajababes are. One of them told her: “Friends of ours who are veiling are doing it because a tight headscarf and a tight outfit is a good look.”

Stratton continues: “in a taxi traveling from Beirut to Jordan, I sat between two girls a little younger than myself. They wore the uniform of 20-somethings everywhere — flared jeans, hems frayed where fashion trainers had worn them down. They were talking about the prevalence of plastic surgery among the girls in their university.

They laughed about two girls who had had nose jobs or “rhinos” during the last holiday. When they returned to class their teacher had remarked how they had bought the same nose. “Bad enough when it’s the same T-shirt,” said the younger girl.” So many now request “a Gywneth Paltrow nose,” that most Middle Eastern plastic surgeons keep a photo of the Oscar winning actress in their surgeries.

Muhajababes watch what the Arabs call “Video-clips”, music videos featuring scantily clad male or female singers “filmed for four minutes wriggling in sand dunes or jiggling on bed sheets.“ They also listen to western pop stars whose lyrics, they say, are teaching them “how to deal with men.”

“Take sex before marriage,” said one candid Muhajababe. “I know it is haram (forbidden by Islam) but the veiled girls . . . they are all at it.”

Stratton then had explained to her the notion of the “Urfi marriage.” These ceremonies allow a young couple to "get married temporarily" and thereby escape damnation on the basis of fornication. There are, they confided, some post-Urfi operations for these temporary brides that are designed to restore their virginity. Even worse, some admitted to secretly smoking and dancing in lycra tights in places where someone always has to act as a lookout.

Muhajababes, Stratton was forced to conclude, are cultural contradictions. No kidding. She also garnered a little hope from them because, she believes, they have inadvertently launched a bit of an Islamic reformation and portend a more moderate Muslim future.
To others, a world full of Muslim women with Gywneth Paltrow’s nose and Britney Spears’ romantic skill sets will strike a note of terror.

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