A Cut Above

  • Zehru Nissa
  • Publish Date: May 3 2016 11:30AM
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  • Updated Date: May 3 2016 11:32AM
A Cut Above
Despised as a symbol of oppression by some, embraced as a marker of identity by others -- the abaya is easily the most politically charged garment of our time. Has Dolce & Gabbana just come to its rescue?   
The story is getting more interesting by the day. There’re countries that have banned it. There’re women that have embraced it. There’re people who have ridiculed and despised it. And then there is a fashion brand that is sticking its labels on it.
The charged narrative around the abaya has taken another twist with Dolce & Gabbana, the popular Italian fashion brand known for its form enhancing outfits, foraying into the manufacture of this “modesty dress”. And as if on cue, D&G’s The Abaya Collection has sparked a fresh discussion about hijab, women and Islam.
Although a touch of fashion, glamour and extravagance to the abaya is nothing new, this is the first time a full collection has been dedicated to this much-debated dress of Muslim women. ‘The Abaya Collection’ is also D&G’s first release of 2016, making it a significant statement. In the past, brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Mango and Zara have made mini contributions to the world of abaya fashion.
All this is happening at a time when the anti-hijab sentiment has percolated from government rhetoric to people’s horrors in many countries in the West. Indeed, since last year’s Paris attacks, there has been a spike in incidents of violence and abuse against Muslims, more so against women wearing hijab. As per media reports, as many as 130 racial attacks were reported in the United Kingdom alone in a week following the attacks. In this climate of Islamophobia, D&G’s abayas, targeted at the untapped market of rich fashionable Muslim women, is but a bold move.
  Although the collection has been well received by fashionistas, the response on social media isn’t without its share of brickbats. Many people have lambasted D&G for “glamorising a regressive practice” of wearing hijab.
Fashionable Politics
Over the years, hijab, or burqa, or abaya has been under scrutiny in the West and extensive efforts have gone into proving that it limits women’s freedom. Some social activists have argued that hijab is a discriminatory and regressive tradition and have pressed women to protest against it; some have even sought it to be banned.
It’s no surprise then that some secular countries have disapproved or even banned niqabs, hijabs, abayas and even headscarves on the grounds of retaining neutrality in the expression of people through their dress. In this list of abaya-abhorrers are some countries where Muslims are a majority, or are a significant population.
While secular countries such as France, Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey have banned Muslim head covering, Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran have made wearing hijab compulsory for women and non-adherence to the defined dress code is a punishable offence.
  Some African countries have formulated -- or are in the process of doing so -- legislation that could define the way Muslim women dress in public. 
In this atmosphere where a hijab is bound to turn heads as the spotlight is on it, for whatever reasons, the designers are having their heyday.
Wearing Her Identity On Her Sleeve
 Many people feel that the growing anti-abaya sentiment is creating a, largely political, situation in the West in which more and more Muslim women want to assert their religious and cultural identity by donning the hijab.
  In Kashmir too, more girls than ever are covering their heads. Safeena did not wear the hijab when she was in Kashmir. She took to this way of dressing after landing in Delhi for studies. “I am not ashamed of being a Muslim, no matter how ‘bad’ they make it sound,” she says.
  For Safeena, donning the hijab is like wearing her “identity on the sleeve” with pride. However, for Aisha, 19, hijab is more of a “trend”. She has learnt the art of tying the head scarf in many innovative ways, perfectly matching her western outfits. “All my friends wear hijab. And we share our expertise of making it look all the more beautiful,” she says. Now, she’s walking in Srinagar in a blue sequined, multi-layered headscarf that perfectly matches her blue denims and black long coat. 
Girls and young women have turned to online tutorials and fashion portals to learn the art of pepping up what used to be a religious outfit alien to Kashmir. 
Traditionally, Kashmiri women’s head covering used to be kasaab, burqa and dupatta. In villages, women wore a rectangular piece of cloth knotted at the back of their heads called ‘pootch’. In the 1990s, abaya, hijab, jilbab and niqab infiltrated women’s wardrobes, displacing most of the traditional headgear.
  Since then, younger women have largely followed global trends rather than tradition when it comes to the choice of head covering.
Good Sense Gains
  Kashmir has seen a spurt in the number of shops that sell hijabs, abayas and similar outfits. Innovative designs, colors, fabrics and fits make this a competitive and thriving market. The garments also come with a touch of local artwork -- ari-work, embroidery.
Gulam Hassan, who runs an abaya retail outlet in downtown Srinagar, feels the pressure of serving customers with the “latest” design. “I take personal note of what is currently popular among women. My shop will always have the latest designs,” Hassan says as he throws packet after abaya packet of multiple colours on the shop counter.
In the packets are abayas with sequins, embroidery, patch work, piping, laces and frills. He shows a catalogue of women wearing these pieces. “I have all matching head covers too,” Hassan says, his eyes gleaming with pride. “I have an exclusive collection,” he says, and hastily adds, “no copy of these is allowed so don’t take pictures.”
In Bangalore, the salesgirl of Islamic Boutique, a shop of high-end designer abayas is more open to the idea of taking pictures. “We have all the latest cuts – gowns, kaftans, frills, coat style,” says Sumaya, who has been in the trade for 10 years. She feels that more women are opening up to the idea of wearing the abaya. “Earlier we used to sell 10-15 abayas a day. Now we sell up to 40 on a good day.” This shop, located in the busy Commercial Market of Bangalore, also sells accessories such as pins, caps, stoles, pre-stitched hijabs and niqabs.
  Although Sumaya has no idea why women are taking to abayas, she is happy that they are. “Our business is expanding. We have opened more outlets. And we update our collection on a daily basis,” she says. 
In metropolitan cities such Delhi and Banaglore, it is a common sight to see women in designer abayas and hijabs. But in the Mideast and across Europe and America, too, women are out to reclaim the right to choose their wardrobe.
  Astute businesses such as D&G have sensed the shift and started to cater to them. Politicians and bigots would do well to take heed.