Faith and Fashion Beyond the Burqa Ban

By Shenaz Kermalli

Europe’s obsession with the way Muslim women choose to dress is far from over. Several months after France banned the burqa, a garment that covers the face and body, from public spaces, Belgium has followed suit. As of last week, women wearing the burqa in public (who constitute a tiny minority in the country) will be fined and could spend up to seven days in prison.

Whether such a ban might ever be implemented in the UK is less clear. Despite the British government’s statement that it would never adopt such measures, calling them “un-British,” public opinion doesn’t appear to agree. In a YouGov poll taken after the French ban, two-thirds of the British public favoured banning the burqa in Britain.

This trend highlights the need to improve understanding of Islam and Muslims.

Fortunately, there are many humanitarian organisations in the UK that aim to both empower young Muslims and build greater understanding and trust between faith communities. The London-based Three Faiths Forum (3FF), for example, builds bridges between Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as atheists and those belonging to non-Abrahamic faiths, through regular events and mentoring programmes.

3FF’s most recent event was a short design course, called “Faith and Fashion”, held earlier this month at the London College of Fashion (LCF). The course was held exclusively for Muslim and Christian girls from local faith schools to explore how faith can inspire fashion, showing that the two can be linked in a positive way and need not only be negatively associated, as with burqa bans.

During the class, Reverend Joanna Jepson, a chaplain at the LCF who designed the course, said she wanted to create a safe space for young girls to engage in meaningful dialogue. “The programme was about getting the students to understand their own identity and hear each other’s stories, as well as to learn the artistic journey from concept to finished design.”

Interestingly, many of the Muslim students in the course who wore the hijab (headscarf) and/or abaya (a long over-garment) said that they found it immensely important to their identity to wear a visible marker of their faith, despite the hostile stares they often received when out in public.

Zainab Niaz, a 15-year-old student at a Muslim school in east London, said fashion played a huge role in her decisions about what clothing to wear, primarily because she was Muslim. “If you didn’t have Islam, you couldn’t show what religion you were, which is an important part of where you’re from.” When asked why letting people know which faith she belonged to was important, Zainab said, “It adds to the diversity of the city.”

Sadiya Ali, 14, from a Catholic school in north London, said: “I don’t think of fashion as beauty. I think of fashion as the clothes that you wear religiously.”

Sporting a neatly tied black scarf tucked into her Catholic school uniform blazer, Sadiya said she has faced continual harassment at her school and in public for her decision to cover her hair. She is adamant though, that people respect her for who she is.

“I’m not afraid to [wear the headscarf] and I’m not forced or scared into wearing a scarf. Sometimes people will judge you by what you wear and they stereotype you before they meet you. But whatever people say you should just ignore it because at the end of the day, it’s your choice and what you want to wear,” Sadiya added. “Don’t follow other people – be yourself.”

The voices of the young may not always be the loudest or the most powerful but they often carry more weight than policymakers appreciate. If the state continues to target Muslims by dictating what to cover and what not to cover, they risk further isolating a community that already feels disengaged. The next generation deserves better.

Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

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