Hijab Spring Fashion

by Mark on 5/12/2010 · 34 comments

The other day when chatting with a fellow expat in Tajikistan I observed that their seemed to be more woman wearing hijabs this spring. My friend agreed and noted a marked increase in young school aged girls.  Last week I visited a primary school in Khujand and was suprised (not shocked, revolted, or dismayed, only suprised) to see girls as young as ten wearing them openly and freely in spite of the ban on wearing the hijab in public institutions.

For a second opinion I polled several coworkers, neighbors, and friends who confirmed our intuition and said for the past 4-6 years there has been a steady increase in women wearing the hijab and men sporting beards. To my follow up question of, “What happened circa 2005 to spur this?” I got varried answers ranging from an increase in foreign and foreign-inspired missonary activity to a the rather vague and predictable “it’s a product of a new generation of young people trying to to find a new, non-Soviet bases for their identity”. Whatever the reason there does appear to be a trend. On Tuesday Radio Free Europe had this piece on the increase in women wearing not only the hijab but the niqab:

In the past year, the number of Tajik women wearing the niqab has grown considerably — with the trend most evident among women in their late teens or early 20s.

The niqab’s rising popularity comes despite a partial ban imposed in 2007 on the comparatively more revealing hijab, branded as an unnecessary foreign import. The wearing of that head scarf, popular among many Tajik Muslim women, is not allowed in state institutions, some public places, and shops.

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Toaf May 13, 2010 at 5:14 am

A recent EurasiaNet article noted a similar trend in Kyrgyzstan where increasing numbers of women (especially in southern Kyrgyzstan) are said to be becoming practicing Muslims.

When I read that I wondered whether it was related to the growth of Hizb ut-Tahrir and its focus on recruiting women, as the ICG recently reported. Still, the ICG seemed to suggest rural/poor women targeted, while the EurasiaNet article talked about urban professionals.

Turgai Sangar May 13, 2010 at 12:53 pm

There is a similar trend in Baku, and there it’s especially among urban female professionals who had an education an do not come from particularly traditionalist families.

Ian May 13, 2010 at 8:14 am

“Fashion” might actually be the key word here, rather than religion or (as Toaf implies) Islamist “recruitment.” For example in Tajikistan in the last couple of years, there was a Moroccan (I think) soap opera with a pretty actress who played a character in hijab, which was very popular among young women who wanted to emulate the look.

Toaf May 14, 2010 at 5:29 am

To clarify, Ian, I wasn’t suggesting that Islamists are making people wear hijab. I was wondering whether the activities of groups like HUT (see ICG report) are linked with the increasing appearance of hijab among devout women. It is, after all, a symbol (and some say requirement) of faith, and HUT is intent upon spreading faith.

Fashion is a possibility, sure, but the woman interviewed in the EurasiaNet article I linked to doesn’t seem to see it that way. She says, “I can’t be double-faced. I can deceive people, but I can’t deceive Allah.” That strikes me as a religious statement, not a fashion statement.

Michael Hancock May 13, 2010 at 10:18 am

William Fierman wrote an article in the not-so-distant past after a recent trip to Kyrgyzstan (to meet with fellow political scientists, etc.) and noted one interesting example: a journalist who interviewed him in Kyrgyz, a young female journalist in hijab and very conservative clothing. I believe this was in Bishkek, meaning in that same room were women with expensive hairsytles and miniskirts. He was contacted by the journalist, if I remember correctly, and visited her at her office — to find her with the same hairstyle and miniskirt. When asked about the seeming about-face, she replied something along the lines that she was expected to portray one face in public, where his interview took place, but that she wasn’t required to wear hijab all the time.
Interesting, no? So I agree – this is a not a sign of “resurgent fundamentalist” Islam, whatever people might mean by that. It’s more an issue of identity and style choice, in my opinion.

Turgai Sangar May 13, 2010 at 12:58 pm

What’s the fuss about actually? Women find dignity and security in Islam that they could not get at all during the libertine pornification and the orchestrated degeneration of society the ’90s.

Abdullah May 13, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Yes, It’s all about fashion, there are no muslims in Central Asia, so therefore their numbers can’t be increasing. I hear next springs fashion will be pink lace thongs and purple tank tops, guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Metin May 13, 2010 at 4:04 pm

if it’s fashion issue – it’s oK. If women are forced/brainwashed to wear hijab – it is not oK.
Largely hijab was seen as a sign of women’s oppression and with reason. In Uzbekistan during 20-s and 30-s number of prominent women who dared to show their faces openly and quit wearing hijabs were brutally murdered by their husbands/relatives. Here too, some extremist male chauvinists used religion/traditions to justify their deeds. It is unfortunate, that such feelings are still strong mostly among poorly educated, impoverished and traditional societies.

KZBlog May 14, 2010 at 2:32 am

By hijab, do you mean headscarf? If that is the case, then it could well be fashion, albeit fashion that comes from Islam. When I was in college, lesbian chic involved wearing a bandana over one’s hair i.e. a hijab and every feminist or lesbian I knew wore it. Here in Kazakhstan, Russians also wear headscarves–whether that comes from the Christian religion or from secular culture, I don’t know. So off-hand observing women wearing a piece of cloth on their head doesn’t say a lot to me. I suppose one litmus test would be whether their hair was showing and whether or not they took it off to adjust it or not.

mark May 14, 2010 at 2:42 am

A litmus test is not required as the traditional Tajik (central Asian) headscarf, hijab, and niqab are all distinct things that are very easy to distinguish.

mark May 14, 2010 at 2:36 am

Wanting more clarity on the issue I did an informal poll of Tajik women I know (from a variety of ages and backgrounds). None related the increase to fashion. All cited religious reasons for the increase. In addition men I talked to said they encouraged female family members to wear the hijab because they thought it was required in Islam–not because it reminded them of a Moroccan bombshell. Fashion also doesn’t seem to account for the increase in little girls wearing it. The one time I heard fashion invoked it was by a rather secular woman who said that Islamic observance has become “fashionable”. She was primarily referring to the increase in crowds at Friday prayers as well as the increase in young men growing beards.

To be clear, I am not equating mosque attendance, hijabs, and beards with radicalism, only with religiosity. Between the theories of “fashion” and “religion” I think Ockhams razor cuts fashion away. Just my perception of the situation in Tajikistan (can’t speak for Biskek Michael).

Toaf May 14, 2010 at 5:30 am

To be clear, I am not equating mosque attendance, hijabs, and beards with radicalism, only with religiosity.

Yes. Thank you!

Jack May 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm

This is a phenomena recurrent throughout the Muslim world post-9/11… It picked up steam after the Iraq war especially.

And then even moreso after 2007. It’s related to the global economic downturn. The signs are everywhere. Growing xenophobia in the West (against Muslims in Europe, against Hispanics in the US), growing religiosity in the East (in Muslim countries especially).

Ian May 14, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Why the need for Ockham here? Is it unthinkable that different women and girls might have different reasons (assuming, I hope you’ll agree, that there might be some variation beyond your informal poll’s respondents)? I don’t think it’s necessary to put an equal sign between hijab and one and only ONE cultural motivation.

mark May 15, 2010 at 1:49 am

Any phenomenon is sure to have more than one cause and of course my anecdotal poll is just that. However when considering the Hijab trend as a whole I find religion a more parsimonious explanation than the desire to emulate a Moroccan actress. Because I haven’t personally met any Tajiks who attribute the Hijab to fashion doesn’t mean that there arn’t any. For all I know they could simply be protecting themselves from the sun? Maybe they are orthodox Jews who didn’t have access to the right head gear? There are infinitely many explanations; I’m simply partial to the ones I have evidence for.

Ian May 15, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Mark, I’m not saying to make up things off the top of our heads, so to speak, so yeah, they’re probably not orthodox Jews. What I am saying is that religiosity is more complex than clothing choice; and also that talking about religiosity in Central Asia always conjures up the Ahmad-Rashid-Central-Asia-is-descending-into-Islamist-chaos bogeyman–for which there is not much evidence, except increased hijab-wearing. If you believe that’s a sign.

The question to me is, first of all, one wonders whether there would be this tendency toward hijab-wearing if the government wasn’t making hijab into a political issue (and we can cross-reference France and Turkey here).

mark May 16, 2010 at 3:37 am

1) I’m not Ahmad Rashid. I’m not talking about “descent into radicalism” only trend towards religiosity.

2) I understand your broader point about the “Central-Asia-is-descending-into-Islamist-chaos bogeyman” attitude of many commentators. However I think some observers of CA, tired of the “the tinderbox” analysis have swung too far in the opposite direction. It’s a case of the boy crying wolf too many times and people deciding wolfs don’t exist—there may very well be a middle ground. Just because some commentator’s analysis is shrill, overblown (or gleaned from wikipedia or clichés) does not mean that it is totally dismissible.

3) While itchy about the issue the Tajik government hasn’t politicized the Hijab to the extent that France and Turkey has. Further I don’t see evidence to support the claim that the government’s position is to blame for an increase in Hijabs (a sort of inverted phenomenon of the one you see in Iran). As far as hypotheses go it seems within the pale, I just don’t see any substantiation for it. Also it’s worth considering that the increase in Hijabs preceded the ban on wearing them.

Ian May 16, 2010 at 9:09 am

Listen, I’m not saying you’re Ahmad Rashid. I see what you’re saying about religiosity. But “some observers of CA”–like Josh and Nathan, perhaps? They’re constantly trying to talk the Islamist chaos crowd down from the ledge. I’d also point out that the wolf of Islamism had nothing to do with recent events in KG, but you never would have been able to predict that based on previous coverage in the bigger media.

Has the Tajikistan government revoked the ban on hijab in schools and universities? That ban was what I was thinking about when making the comparison to France and Turkey.

Finally, and then I’ll let go, I just want to add another possibility for why girls might go the hijab route. When I lived there (admittedly a few years back, now), I would occasionally peruse the personal ads in the papers. Almost every “man seeking woman” ad specified these kinds of things: no makeup; modest, wants to have children. Single Tajik men in Dushanbe, the tiny number of this constituency, was specifying “modesty” as the trait they sought in a mate. Not a scientific poll, much like yours, but bear with it. Also, the family I lived with had a daughter, 17, who was clearly going to great lengths to be “modest” in her behavior–especially when it came my presence. Her older brother explained to me that the reason should could barely look at me, much less speak with me, was because having an American living in the house was putting her marriageablity rep at risk, so she needed to make sure there was no doubt. (Also, an American friend constantly got high praise from her Tajik friends for her supposed “skromnost”).

I’d be hard-pressed to identify “modesty” as a specifically Islamic value in Central Asia; I mean, if you’re a pious Muslim you might claim that value for your religion, but Central Asian feminine “modesty” goes back a ways and has little to do with modernist Islam that tells women they have to cover.

So if you’re a Tajik girl of marrying age, you might be seeking ways to highlight your adherence to the cultural value that single men are looking for–single men being vastly outnumbered in Tajikistan by single women, so the mating competition is more intense to be sure. And if there’s any hint that a hijab will make you look more modest, I could imagine that Tajik girls would flock to hijab like American girls flock to whatever latest fashion they are flocking to. Men want, women respond, especially in a society that still prioritizes a traditional value like modesty.

Lastly, if we are using hijab as an indicator of religiosity, what I’d like to do next is find out whether the muhajibas are in fact doing things like: praying 5 times, giving alms, thinking about doing the hajj, learning about the Quran and Muhammad. My guess is they’re not really doing those things as frequently as they’re wearing the hijab, but that’s just my guess.

mark May 17, 2010 at 2:15 am

Tajikistan government has not revoked the ban on hijab. My only claim was that it is not AS politicized as the situation in Turkey and Europe. That’s why I was surprised to see girls wearing them in school–it’s apparently being sporadically enforced (not unlike the ban on gold teeth). Also, as noted above, the chronology of the ban is interesting.

Re modesty: I agree that modesty isn’t a specifically Islamic value in Central Asia. It is part and parcel of the culture. I have similar experiences in the family I live with. Most of the time when I visit friends we eat separately, the women cover their heads (with headscarves), don’t make eye contact when they sporadically appear, and generally behave very conservatively. I don’t attribute this behavior to Islam, but to culture.

Women’s modesty is so organic to the culture that they “foreign” means like the hijab to express it. Tajik dress allows for essentially the same degree of modesty but in manifested in a slightly different form. Whether the Hijab is actually foreign to Tajikistan is debatable and depends on how far back in history you want to go. Regardless of the reality most Tajiks I have encountered consider the Hijab as foreign, often referring to it as “arabaiski” etc (and no these arn’t just the urban, Russified ones).

I actually agree with your theory of mating. However I don’t think it’s a “cultural trait” the men (the ones who are attracted to hijabs that is) are looking for as much as a specifically Islamic one. I think that the increase in religiosity in men is probably the driving factor in the increase in women wearing Hijabs.

Ian May 14, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Is it indicative of something that no women, much less Muslim women, have commented here?

Abdullah May 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm

220,000 plus Central Asian students in Al-Azhar this year! Never mind, that has absolutely nothing to do with an increase in the number of woman wearing hijab in Centra Asia.

Ian May 16, 2010 at 9:22 am

Al-Azhar has a student population of 420,000, of whom 76,000 are women, and 16,000 international students. According to its president, Al-Azhar today stands for, and actively promotes, “moderate Islam.” (Source)

Ian May 16, 2010 at 9:13 am

Um, yeah, I’m pretty sure al-Azhar doesn’t have 220,000 students, period, nice try tho. I can haz statz?

Abdullah May 16, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I am writing from Al-Azhar as I type this. The numbers in the article you quoted are probably from the University level in Egypt, as the post is referring to a fellowship there. The Al-Azhar system first of all is no longer confined to Egypt only, but encompasses universities and facilities all over the world, even in the USA. I asked again this morning to be sure, but yes, the system does have more than 220,000 central Asians in it. Most of the central Asians unfortunately for them, are not able to attend the number of years it takes to finish the university, or even get into the university for that matter. Therefore, most of the Central Asian students attend the 3 year,(min.) preparation school, required to take or test out of before entering the University, which teaches the Arabic language, and all the basic courses of Islamic study. I have two Tajiks living in the room next to me that are in there first year of University, which is rare for them, but they also have there families here. The wives attend another Islamic school, and the children also attend one of Al-Azhar’s primary schools. Aside from all the students, I associate with with friends who in large settlements/communities of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and others. I am told the Uzbek community here, which has been here for decades, is over 50,000. I have also ran into such communities while living in Saudi, and Syria as well.

Turgai Sangar May 16, 2010 at 12:46 pm

“the system does have more than 220,000 central Asians in it.”

Wop-pa! Surpising and very unlikely IMO. Al-Azhar University figures for 2008-2009 mention 156 students from Tj, 43 for Uz, 38 for Kg, 93 for Kz and 33 for Tm.

Also, how do you define ‘Central Asians? Only the five ex-USSR ‘stans or does it includes Tatars and Bashkir, Khorassan-Af, Pk and the Uighurs too?

Abdullah May 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I don’t think you read my post correctly or you would understand that these numbers are not reflective of , first, the Al-Azhar system as a whole, and second, it is obviously not reflective of the number of students in the pre-University phase of study. The figures you have stated above are certainly not the true picture here on the ground. For example, on any given Juma, one will find more than 3000, Central Asians at the mosque I attend, and most of them are in the Al-Azhar system. I don’t think you understand the system, and not your fault if you are not a student. It can 3-5 years before one is ready for the University study, sometimes longer, and most of the Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tatars, Karakalpak, etc…etc….etc….are unfortunately unable to stay for that long. Much is to do with the residency permit system here, and much to do with finances. Many of the students are supported, I support many myself, but for those who aren’t, it is difficult to stay. And I don’t define what central Asians are at Al-Azhar, for instance, when I here teachers refer to Uighers, they are usually referred to as the Chinese, although my friend is married to a Tartar, and she has never been outside of Tashkent, and she certainly refers to herself as Central Asian, as would I.
Getting back to the idea of hijab, my wife read the post by someone about no women speaking up here, so from her, she wears the niqab, because she wants to, not because she has to because of our religion, although she believes our religion does require a hijab, and on the non religious side of it, she says” I don’t have to fuss with my hair or makeup, just slip it on and go”.

Abdullah May 16, 2010 at 1:24 pm

One other point to ponder. If you check the official number of Americans studying at Al-Azhar, It will probably be like 2 I think, but the reality is quite different, I assure you. More than that from my family alone. And most of my Uzbek friends, can’t say for the others, they are here on Russian passports.

Shoira Pulatova May 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm

It is a very interesting article. I have to agree with Ian who wrote that Tajik women were influenced by Moroccan soap opera were all the ladies were wearing pretty scarfs and long dresses. A lot of women and young girls started wearing hijab and even putting make up the same way that they main character in that movie did.
Many young girls in my country(Tajikistan) look at hijab as a fashion trend and many do that to attract religious guys (since there are a lot of them now). I know it sounds bad but this is the truth. I am pretty sure that if you would ask those little girls the religious meaning of wearing hijab, they would not know what is the purpose of it.

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