I had just touched down in NYC after being away for the summer and one thing struck me: many more women are wearing the hijab on the streets. And not just hijabs. I've seen more abayas in my first week back than in 10 years here. After all the controversy about the building of mosques in the States and the anti-Islamic sentiments that dominated the American media in July and August, I came back to a more Muslim New York.
New York has always been a place where cultures and religions and fashion styles coexist effortlessly, so there shouldn't have been anything odd about these sights. I was struck because I was expecting the opposite. Non-Muslims always insist on describing female Islamic dress as "boring" or "oppressive". But at university in New York, significant numbers of girls wore the hijab, and wore it very stylishly. One friend of Pakistani descent, born and raised in New York City, had a way of matching her scarf to her outfit - which always included the latest jeans and jackets - so effortlessly that I wanted her entire wardrobe.
Anyone who has travelled to the Emirates will see that the abaya can be subject to the whims of fashion as much as any item of clothing anywhere in the world. Of course, some of the fashions, just like some trends in the States, I will never understand. For example, what my friends and I mockingly call the "Beehive" - where girls wear an elaborate up-do underneath their shaila - is as tough for me to understand as the "I-just-rolled-out-of-a-dumpster" look that swept NYC a few years ago.
As I'm in Abu Dhabi only once a year, I always feel the need to keep up. My latest obsessions are the abayas with one coloured sleeve, and the ones with flowing sleeves. My dad calls them gowns, not abayas, and that's exactly what women's clothing should be - flowing and elegant. Wearing an abaya, I can feel feminine without being in form-fitting clothes, which make me conscious of my body and can be uncomfortable (have you considered how much movement is restricted by skinny jeans?).
Designers are getting in on the abaya act, too. Last year I read about the Emirati sisters Hind and Reem Beljafla, who have started their own fashion label, DAS. And Rabia Z is an Emirati-Afghan designer who wants to make clothing (not just abayas) for the "modern" Muslim woman, who wants to be modest and respect the hijab but still be stylish. I feel proud that young women are finally taking part in designing styles for themselves.
Being modest means you aren't trying to attract unnecessary attention. It doesn't mean you can't be stylish. Showing cleavage or wearing mini skirts aren't the only ways to look and feel feminine. It's nice to see that this trend is extending beyond the Arab world. Last summer a fashion show in Paris showcased abayas designed by Nina Ricci, Jean-Claude Jitrois, and John Galliano for Christian Dior, and Italian fashion houses Blumarine and Alberta Ferretti. The show, held in June 2009, came right after the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, commented that full face veils were not welcome in France and made prisoners of women.
For many Muslim woman, these comments were patronising and offensive. Most women I know who wear the hijab do it willingly. Just because wearing shorts is an option doesn't mean that covering up is automatically a sign of oppression. I agree with the argument that covering up is actually empowering, allowing women to sidestep the prevailing culture of sexuality in the West. Modest dressing applies to both sexes (yes, young man decked out in head-to-toe Gucci, I mean you), and the fact that modest dress can be fashionable just makes it a whole lot easier.