Religion and Dress: Muslim Women’s Style and Fashions

Queen Amina of Zaria

When many people think of fashion and style only prominent Western designs and way of dressing come to mind. Western culture has been given the mini-skirt in the 90s, rounded toe pumps and stacked heels in the 00s. Now- a-days we wear bubble skirts and our shoes and hand bags do not have to match anymore. In fact matching from head to toe just as wearing one designer from head to toe is a fashion faux pas.

In this age of the continuous rise of the modern woman, some people claim their fashion icons are Audrey Hepburn, Sarah Jessica Parker, and most recently Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. There are other fashion icons that are never mentioned and these are women of strength, courage, and wisdom. Their dress reflected their work and position as humanitarians to society and role models to young girls in so called “Third World Countries.”

Anne Klein said: “Clothes aren’t going to change the world, the women who wear them will.” Klein’s quote speaks to the nature of certain positions that women are filling. It is now all right for women to dress sophisticatedly and not be judged by what she wears. The intellectual modern woman is defined by her style and charisma.

I have researched two women. One from last century and one this century who pushed the boundaries of style with their conservative dress due to their important societal role. I also spoke with two of my former classmates from my boarding school years in London, who are Muslim and adapted their style when living in the Western world.

With current trends in fashions and television shows we never see how Muslim women dress, but with recent developments in the Middle East and India their fabrics and style of dress are making their way into our side of the world.

Queen Amina of Zaria (1533-1610), the warrior, boasted amazing military skills and is famous for her bravery and military exploits in Zaria, Kaduna, which is a state in Nigeria (Kaduna). She expanded the territory of the Hausa people in North Africa to the largest boarders in history. Now 500 years later, she became the model for the television series Xena, Warrior Princess. Amina is celebrated in song as “Amina daughter of Nikatau, a woman as capable as a man.” Amina was always adorned in jewels from head to toe. She wore red, which provided great contrast on her rich dark skin. Amina also always had her head wrapped as is customary for Muslim women. The nature of her position did not call for extravagance or keeping up with fashion trends, instead Amina dressed for her role, which was a warrior.

Queen Rania at the World Economic Forum, Davos, January 30 2010.

Queen Rania of Jordan has been given the title of the ‘Princess Grace and Princess Diana of Jordan’ because of her elegant style and her ability to reach out almost any one with her warm smile and charisma. Rania Al-Yassin was born in Kuwait and earned a degree in Business Administration from the American University in Cairo. After graduating in 1991, Queen Rania worked at Citibank and Apple Computer and in 1995, She earned a DEA’s degree in Management from the HEC University of Paris.

In 1993 at a dinner party, she met Jordanian King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein, then Prince. Two months later, they announced their engagement and on June 10, 1993, they were married. They have four children.

She was named the third most beautiful woman in the world in the 2005 top 100 of Harpers & Queen magazine. She has pushed for educational reform, fighting for better school facilities and mandatory English language training in Jordan. Queen Rania is part of many charities and is active with Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, The World Economic Forum, UN Children’s Fund, and The Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship.

In May of 2000, she was named an honorary member of Deerfield Academy’s class of 2000 (her husband’s alma mater).

Queen Rania was the youngest woman in the world at the time King Abdullah succeeded to the throne to become queen.

Rania has now become a beacon for world peace and a fashion icon based on her work. Her dress is conservative, but stylish and is always seen white oxford shirts, two piece suits and silk or organza gowns.

Hasana & Husaina are the 4th and 6th girls

Hasana and Husaina Bello Aliyu are twin sisters who studied in London from Secondary School until their Masters. Hasana is now an Engineer in Nigeria and Husaina has worked in health consultancy. Both worked together to share their position as Muslim women in the corporate Western world.

Hasana and Husaina Bello Aliyu: “As Muslims, when it comes to dressing, you have to dress modestly. That means that your clothes should not be figure hugging and you should cover your hair. It doesn’t mean that you should dress up like a ninja or that you have to wear an abaya (the black robe that Arab women wear) as most people think. So as long as you keep within those requirements, you can still be quite fashionable.”

“In Nigeria, in the North, we are quite traditional, so even the young girls wear Atampa (Ankara) on a daily basis. But we funk it up by sawing it into fashionable styles, dresses or skirt and tops (like they are doing in Lagos now, thinking they are real trend setters but we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time). Atampa material is more for everyday use, if we want to dress up, we use other materials such as Lace, Lafaya or Caftans. There are markets in Kano such as Kusuwa Kori, and Kurmi, which are very famous for materials. You can get any material, in any color you want in these markets. We top the outfit up with a Mayafai (a veil) wrapped around us at the top are usually short sleeved. Again, the mayafai is often colorful, studded, and very pretty.”

“Jewelry is essential. Girls wear a lot of gold, traders in the market bring gold from Saudi or Dubai, so there are a lot of choices. We would say that Northern girls really make an effort with their dressing, especially as there are always social events to go to such as weddings etc where you might just snag a husband! So you must look your best. While we are dressed modestly, keeping our religion in mind, we still dress attractively and very feminine.”

“There is definitely social pressure to dress modestly, especially from the older generation. People will talk about you if you were caught in something risqué. You cannot visit an older relative inappropriately dressed, they will abuse you (verbally put you to shame). In certain places like Kaduna or among the northerners in Abuja, people are more relaxed in their dressing, but places like Kano where we grew up are still very conservative.”

“I (Husaina) did not cover my hair in London, I guess because it is easier. Covering one’s hair is not just about covering one’s hair, it is part of a whole lifestyle which prohibits things such as mixing to freely with men, going to certain places such as bars (not that I drink anyway) etc. In Nigeria I can maintain that lifestyle, but it is much harder in London. It would have affected socialization especially as a student. So for that reason, I did not cover up because I do not want to be a hypocrite. But if I did, in terms of fashion, I would not stand out from the crowd. You get people with very different fashion senses in London, but because it is a very cosmopolitan, open society, everybody is entitled to their own style. Muslim women shop in the same places as everyone else and wear the latest fashions; they just add a head scarf to the outfit. There were a lot of choice in fashion in London, be it designer or high street brands, which is quite different from America from what I hear.”

“I (Hasana) think a modestly dressed woman is equally as sexy as any other woman. There is something alluring about a woman who is covered up. The look can be extremely elegant and sophisticated. Just like in Western societies there are those who are fashionably and those who aren’t. Depending on the person women dress modestly, but still make the look stand out and look good. However, most women who cannot be bothered to follow trends and find it easier to just throw on black abaya.”

“A Muslim woman is supposed to have her hair covered whenever in public or in the presence of men whom she is not related to. This is probably the one aspect that is hardest to adhere to when living and working in London. While at school it was hard to participate in school activities such as sports and have you hair covered at the same time. It is also the same thing in the corporate world, especially with my job were I have to wear a safety hat while on site –this would be hard to do with a scarf on my head.”

In this modern age, women are gaining more and more momentum than in the 80s and 90s. Sexy is not defined by how hard you try to be fashionable. A woman has to respect herself, her culture and her family name. We have Asma Al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria, Aishwarya Bachchan, Sushmita Sen, Michelle Obama and even Carla Bruni-Sarkozy who assert that clothes do not have to be flashy and trashy to be stylish. These women with the exception of Bruni-Sarkozy who was a model and singer, come from conservative societies and households where too much revelation of the skin, or hair etc, is frowned upon. Things are changing in those countries, but you would never find any of those ladies in booty shorts walking to work.

As Yves St. Laurent said, “fashions fade, but style is eternal” so it makes a lot of sense to adapt your style to your society.

Nonny’s List will feature more original essay’s on the following topics:

“Cultural and Tribal Assumptions and Dress”

“The Male Gaze on Women in the Media”

“The Nigerian Men’s Fashion Position and Opposition”

“Women in Fashion Discourse in Nigeria”

and much more so stay tuned and thank you for reading.

By Nonny Diana Chizea

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  1. Nice article, but Zaria is NOT a state in Nigeria neither is it a state capital,please get your facts straight before publishing anything. It is part of Kaduna state (a town), and the capital of Kaduna state is Kaduna.


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