Most of the women I know are prone to believe that Islam and fashionability cannot mix. Daughters of a Carrie Bradshaw creed, the popular version of contemporary feminism we have grown acquainted with, most of the women of my generation share the implicit notion that female freedom can be effectively expressed – among other things – through stilettos and lipstick.
I was, of course, one of these women, experiencing a sense of nuisance at the sight of a woman wearing the veil. I had assumed that these women, who cover their hair and who were unable to flaunt vivaciousness in the form of clothes, were being hindered by the men of their culture. These sets of rules, I presumed, had to be a radical expression of the way a man can define a woman´s sense of being.
When I looked closer, demystification not only unveiled my very own perceptive limitations, brought forth by the very context of my provenance, but it also jolted me into seeing how a single piece of clothing, how an object made for ornamentation, can bear the possibility of multiple meaning. Stilettos can mean one thing for a woman and a radically different thing to the next. Hijab, what we broadly categorize as “the veil”, is just as malleable and diverse in signification. It can be taken in your late twenties because you awakened different into your culture; it can symbolize the ways in which the females of a country such as Indonesia are rebelling and not adjusting to reigning orders.
As a woman, my own personal battle has always been for freedom. A mental freedom that is hard to achieve in a country where a woman´s sense of being is predominantly shaped by the approval of men. Colombia is a country that offers few options in terms of femininity. It is also a country distant from Islam and a place where women are quite able to display their voluptuous and frequently surgically intervened bodily figures. It inherits a greater Christian oriented scheme of thought where, unconsciously, women are thought of as Eve, the sinner; Mary, the virgin; Mary Magdalene, the repented prostitute; and the witch, that strange, defying, indefinable woman who dares to be different and must therefore be a dangerous, hunt worthy creature.
The veil seemed to me a mere projection of the ways women battle throughout their entire lives against the defining powers of men. In Colombia, when I fervently criticized short hemlines and tight silhouettes, I was truly discussing the ways clothes can enact a woman´s sense of being. Dressing solely to please men goes beyond matters of taste.
There is a wonderful thing about fashion and life that I had failed to fully grasp before coming to New York: the concept of difference. I began to see it in the abstractness of academic ideas, I experienced it – and still do – in the intensity of a city that crawls invisibly under your skin with its myriad of individuals and smells and possibilities. Context is the ultimate sculptor of things. It shapes the meaning of a word beyond its actual definition. It molds what a piece of clothing or an accessory can represent.
There are times when, in the need to understand difference, analogy comes in handy. Jeans can mean to another woman what a little black dress means to me, for instance: cool comfort, easy chic, versatile simplicity and a straightforward way to rapidly get in tune with my own sense of self. But there are other times when comparisons are not enough. There is nothing in the world comparable to little black dress for another woman because the city she lives in, the ways she experiences her body and life are simply – but complexly – different. It goes beyond the ways I understand things. There is no common ground.
Hijab is a different way of understanding what being fashionable can mean.
My piece on The Daily Beast came out on May 21st. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/05/21/the-rise-of-hijab-fashion-bloggers.html