Contemporary Muslim Fashion

Today was the last day to see San Francisco’s De Young Museum exhibition titled ” Contemporary Muslim Fashion. The response to the exhibition was overall praise. Praise for the subject matter itself in these challenging times for Muslim identity. Praise for the exhibition itself. For some, it did seem that the idea that the ” hijab’ or covering could be stylish seemed an oxymoron. How can Muslim women have fashion when they are forced to wear a Hijab. There is 1.8 Billion Muslims, and if 50 percent are women, You can do the math, The exhibition achieved its purpose. It showed that not only were Muslim women fashion conscious but adamantly proud to be so. The recent article by Hana Siddiqi published by the San Franscisco Chronicle tells us why.

At a recent gathering of Muslim friends, the “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibition at the de Young Museum came up, and right away Google calendars were consulted and a trip planned. When I learned that a friend, the stylist Saba Ali, was involved in the show, I was sold.

I had the pleasure of taking my 11-year-old daughter on a homeschooling night out to the museum. Walking up to the building, we noticed the larger-than-life window banners featuring the Somali supermodel Halima Aden and the word “beauty” in Arabic script. This brought on a moment of pride — and warranted a selfie. In the weeks ahead, this background popped up in photos all over my news feed as more friends went to see the exhibition.

Inside, our eyes fell upon beautifully made gowns, photos of niqabi biker chicks and a plethora of hijabs — as well as mannequins sans head coverings — that proved that Muslim women come in many forms. From the start, we could see that the exhibition did not frame women as oppressed victims and did not focus on the solid black ensemble some see as the representation of Muslim dress.

Rather, the galleries were filled with not only traditional abayas but also couture gowns and street clothing. There were also other media, such as a mini-documentary of Arab fashion icon and humanitarian Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, the viral Mipsters video montage featuring Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad, and the hauntingly beautiful work of the artist Shirin Neshat. There were large screens flashing popular posts from Muslim fashion bloggers and oversize photographs of global street fashion, such as regular folk donning a hijab under a baseball cap. With all this, the exhibition captured the full range of how Muslim women present themselves, to themselves, each other and the world.
It was basically a Muslim Girl Fest. My daughter called it “empowering … especially for young Muslim girls like me. Plus, it was so beautiful and diverse.”

The clothing styles that may seem repressive to a Western audience — or, on the other hand, improper to more conservative Muslims — were for her an affirmation. She walked among the displays, captivated at how Muslim fashions can be used to express religiosity, culture and beauty. We’ve traveled to the Middle East and Europe, where Muslims are more visible than in the U.S., and my daughter has scrolled through Muslim fashion on Pinterest, so it wasn’t the novelty of the collection that appealed to her. What struck her was that her own experience was gathered right here, at a public art space in the heart of the Bay Area.

My daughter, being mixed, is proud of her South Asian Muslim roots as well as her Mexican and European heritage. It’s her awareness, however, that Muslims have been marginalized in the media that makes her embrace any positive portrayal. More than that, seeing an exhibit in which Muslim girls and women are representing themselves, through blogs, through music and through design, was uplifting.

As an artist and musician who proudly uses her medium to speak her mind, my daughter thrives on seeing others doing the same. She recognized Mona Haydar’s hip-hop video “Wrap My Hijab” playing on a large screen. It was a video we’d seen together. It appealed to her not only because of the catchy tune, but more importantly, because the female Muslim rapper, hijabi dancers and slew of girls were visibly having fun. I contemplated bringing up the criticism it received from members of the Muslim community who thought it’s popularity was undeserved, or deemed it inappropriate; women in the public sphere are commonly criticized and held to a higher standard than men. My daughter became familiar with this issue while researching gender discrimination for an assignment, but in the moment I chose to put the conversation off and allow her to revel in her girl-power moment.

There were also moments of more personal connection. I pointed out to my daughter her Uncle Mark’s “We the People” protest poster, created in 2017 by Amplifier and ObeyGiant for a campaign challenging mainstream views about American identity.

“It’s kind of unexpected for people to create a place only focusing on Muslim women’s fashion,” my daughter observed, “because a lot of that kind of stuff is looked down upon just because some believe Muslims are terrorists. They don’t really have an interest in this aspect … so it’s like an empowering statement to show the beauty of Muslim women through fashion.”

This pre-teen was articulating what many of us feel: That so often, anything of beauty connected to Islam can be diminished or overpowered by rampant negative stereotypes. This exhibition was the opposite of that, and the time we spent together absorbing the beautiful collection connected us to our Muslim heritage in a way that is irreplaceable.

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