Niqabs, Abayas, Burkinis, and How California Got Its Name

The de Young's comprehensive look at hijab and other forms of modest dress, “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” examines topics that inflame xenophobic conservatives and left-leaning Western feminists alike.

Rendering of “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibition gallery. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

She talked about getting death threats. She talked about hateful strangers wanting to harm her children. And she talked about “male toxicity” and the way it punishes women for being women.

This wasn’t last week’s Brett Kavanaugh hearings in Washington, D.C. This was last week’s special event at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where New York rapper Mona Haydar was riffing about her outspokenness, and how the simple act of wearing a Muslim head scarf — and extolling the ways the hijab liberates women — can prompt so much hate and anxiety.

“The whole world suffers from toxic patriarchy and masculinity,” Haydar told the audience that crowded into the first-floor atrium for the museum’s Friday night event, which celebrated the new exhibit, “Contemporary Muslim Fashions.” “And what that often looks like is a conversation about women’s bodies and their clothing — and what women should and shouldn’t wear; and what they can and can’t do with their bodies. And a hijab fits perfectly inside that whole conversation.”

It fits perfectly because the hijab is conflated with fears about “Muslim takeover of the West” and “women’s oppression in Islam” and other reductive and sensationalized impressions that — whether ironic or not — create veils of misunderstanding. These veils are self-imposed. “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” — the first major U.S. museum exhibit of its kind — goes out of its way to lift those veils of misunderstanding at the same time that it celebrates the literal veils, scarves, and other items Muslim women wear in their day-to-day lives. For anyone who’s never been in a Muslim-majority country, or never been in a milieu where a majority of people are Muslim, “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” will be a revelation. And an intense experience.

Headscarves are everywhere: on the mannequins that flank the exhibit, on the women who posed for photos and videos that are featured on the de Young’s walls, and on many art-goers who visit “Contemporary Muslim Fashions.” The exhibit showcases images of the niqab, which covers every part of a woman’s face except her eyes. Abayas — loose garments that are like cloaks and often obfuscate women’s bodies — are also on display. And the wall text that follows visitors emphasizes two words: “Modest fashion.” But the exhibit makes a point of including many mannequins without hijab. Some of the plastic models have plunging necklines and exposed arms. And the exhibit features fashion designs — by big Western fashion houses like Christian Dior, and relatively small-name fashion designers like Izree Kai Haffiz who live in Muslim-majority countries — that accentuate women’s bodies. In a video promoting the exhibit, an attractive model who’s fashionably (and modestly) dressed looks at the camera, puckers up her red-lipsticked lips, and moves to kiss the lens. Hmm.

Then there’s the exhibit’s use of Haydar’s Hijabi (Wrap my hijab) video, in which a pregnant Haydar parades with scores of young, hijab-wearing women, who sing, dance, and pose as the artist raps in a defiant parlance that includes the words, “Even if you hate it, I still wrap my hijab” and “Make a feminist planet. Women haters get banished. Covered up or not, don’t ever take us for granted.”

Muslim fashion isn’t monolithic, of course. That goes without saying, but it’s a theme that gets repeated in “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” at the same time as another theme that’s obvious to anyone who’s stepped foot in countries like Iraq and Jordan, or who’s been in Muslim circles elsewhere: Muslim women have choices. Fashion choices, and choices of thought. But those choices are complicated, and perceptions of the subject are so intense that nuances about Muslim fashion get lost, and contradictory truths — about patriarchy, politics, colonialism, racism, Islamophobia, feminism, and (yes) fashion — are easily dismissed in favor of simpler answers.

One example is the burqini. First created in 2003 by Lebanese-Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, the swimwear covers the entire body — but provides a freedom that allows its wearers to swim laps, run along a beach, or just relax under a beach umbrella. The burqini is stylish and comfortable, its users say. But it’s illegal to wear on select French beaches because those cities’ governments have banned it — saying the garment is an affront to France’s secular character. In 2016, then-French Prime Minister Manuel Valls supported the prohibitions, saying, “The burqini is not a new range of swimwear, a fashion. It is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women.”

The enslavement of women? Not at “Contemporary Muslim Fashions,” which acknowledges France’s burqini ban with archived news footage but situates the exhibit’s burqini display near an athletics display of Muslim women wearing burqini-like clothing. This nearby display includes a photo of Ibtihaj Muhammad, the U.S. hijab-wearing fencer who won a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Last year, Nike introduced a hijab that’s especially designed for female Muslim athletes.

Last year, Mattel released a hijab-wearing Barbie that was modeled after Ibtihaj Muhammad. “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” features video that shows hijab-wearing skateboarders, a photo of a hijab-wearing javelin thrower in Palestine, a photo of a hijab-wearing woman doing yoga in public, and a photo of three hijab-wearing motorcyclists standing on their bikes in a Morocco alleyway, while the exhibit’s accompanying catalogue features hijab-wearing professional basketball player Indira Kaljo, who was a top three-point shooter when she played for Tulane University.

The enslavement of women? To its credit, “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” points out instances where Muslim women are subjected to oppressive fashion rules and other restrictions. In Iran, for instance, the ruling clerical government has required women to wear hijab in public since 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and instituted strict religious policies. A protest movement has recently surfaced in Iran, wherein some women have ripped off their headscarves in public. Iranian police have arrested some demonstrators, with video and pictorial accounts reaching a global audience through social media and media reports. Besides acknowledging the hijab protests, “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” features a 1998 Shirin Neshat art video, Turbulent, that testifies to the hypocritical ways that Iran’s government clamps down on women.

In Turbulent, Neshat uses two video screens — one of which has an Iranian man performing rapturously to a full audience, the other of which has a woman (Sussan Deyhim) in a cloak performing an agonizing and impassioned song to an empty theater. The man is celebrated, the woman ignored. Women can’t perform publicly in Iran, and Neshat has said Deyhim’s performance in Turbulent “is not just breaking the rules of social behavior [in Iran], as a woman performing or singing in a public space, but also breaking the rules of music.”

One question that hangs over the exhibit is this: Are Iran’s restrictions — and other fashion and gender norms in the Muslim world — an indictment of Islam or something else? Scholars and cultural critics have debated that question long before Max Hollein — who directed the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and now heads New York’s Metropolitan Museum — decided the de Young should stage “Contemporary Muslim Fashions.” As a religion, Islam is more than 1,400 years old, and claims more than 1.5 billion adherents. There are some 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world, with the most populated country located in Asia: Indonesia, with more than 220 million practitioners.

“Contemporary Muslim Fashions” features myriad fashion designs from across the world, including Asia, and including designers whose works could easily fit on any Paris or New York fashion runway. But Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri, the exhibit’s architects — the people commissioned to design the de Young’s exhibit — made sure that every display had elements of the Muslim world, whether it’s geometric star patterns that are common to North Africa or mashrabiya architectural patterns that are common throughout the Muslim world.

These elements are also common in parts of North and South America, thanks to Spaniards who borrowed cultural elements from Muslim rule in Spain and spread these hybridized ideas around the world. Spain even brought these ideas to California, whose very name stems from Arabic-influenced Spanish. Spain named the state after a queen called Calafia from a 16th-century Spanish novel, The Adventures of Esplandian. Calafia, whose name relates to the Arabic word caliph, rules over a magical island in the novel. So it’s entirely appropriate that “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” — an exhibit about hybridized influences, and cultural connections that unite Muslim women with each other and other women around the world — is centered at a major California institution.

Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri were born in Iran and now reside in New York. Haydar was born in Saudi Arabia to Syrian parents but also lives now in New York. Echoes of the Me Too movement were in Haydar’s Friday night event. But more than a #MeToo event, the night — and the exhibit — are rooted in a kind of #MuslimToo hashtag, as in, “We’re here, too. We have lives that parallel yours.” That’s what Haydar was saying as she took questions from the audience, and a non-Muslim man rose from his seat and said this: “When I see a [Muslim] woman in a scarf, it says, ‘Stay away.’ ”

“The scarf isn’t saying that, but maybe her body language is — her scarf isn’t saying anything,” Haydar answered. “If you were to come up and say, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you,’ then I’d probably talk to you. A Muslim woman who’s in the audience works at Google. She’s very busy and very educated. She also runs a nonprofit. She might not have time to stop and chat. She’s out there changing the world. … So it differs from woman to woman, just like it does from a non-scarf-wearing woman to another non-scarf-wearing woman.”

The audience applauded. And that’s how the night ended. Almost. Haydar then left the stage and took a selfie with everyone in the room — or, at least with those who wanted to embrace her before the camera.

Jonathan Curiel has covered art and culture for SF Weekly since 2010.
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“Contemporary Muslim Fashions,” through Jan. 6 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (Golden Gate Park). $13-$28, 415-750-3600 or deyoung.famsf.org

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