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Bans, Burqinis, And 'Bad Hijab'

  • Kristin Deasy

Australian model Mecca Laalaa wears an Islamic swimsuit.

Australian model Mecca Laalaa wears an Islamic swimsuit.

Islamic female clothing has become as much a political statement as it is a religious statement in many countries, which is why Marjona has a fashion problem.

The 20-year-old Tajik, a devout Muslim and madrasah student, says she feels "increasingly passionate" about wearing hijab, the Islamic head scarf, "but you aren't allowed to wear the hijab in schools."

Graduation will solve Marjona's problem. Tajik officials banned girls from wearing hijab in public and Islamic schools and universities this fall, but grown women are free to wear what they like.

Many Muslim women don't get off so easily, however. When laws on religious clothing conflict with their personal beliefs, no matter what Muslim women wear, be it a full-body "burqini" swimsuit in secular France or a too-loose hijab in doctrinaire Iran, it's probably wrong.

French officials have long sought to set restrictions on what Muslim women can and should wear. President Nicholas Sarkozy has controversially described Islamic dress as reducing women to "prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity."

Chloe Patton used to live in France and now studies hijab-wearing youth in Australia. She says that despite "a lot of hypocrisy" and "long-standing politics" on Islamic clothing, there are genuine safety concerns. In France and other Western European countries, women have been attacked and killed for not wearing a head scarf.

John Bowen, a U.S. anthropologist and the author of the book "Why The French Don't Like Headscarves," thinks the idea that head scarves are "the symbol of the oppression of women" lacks evidence.

"It's just a claim kind of thrown out there," he says.

Still, the French have issued a series of bans on Islamic wear, beginning with head scarves in schools.

More recently, lawmakers have declared swimming pools off-limits to women wearing burqinis, which resemble a loose-fitting wetsuit with an attached hood. Officials say the suits are unhygienic. But the decision sparked controversy in a country famed for its topless beaches and devotion to fashion.

Growing unrest prompted French officials to launch a public debate on the French national identity this week, including a proposed ban on the burqa.

Bowen, who is preparing expert testimony for the French parliamentary committee considering the burqa ban, believes the Islamic clothing debate is a "symbol" of a larger goal. France's goal, which Bowen describes as a "state project," is secularist and concerned with, he says, "trying not to be taken over by what they would call an Islamist ideology."

'A Bomb In My Undies'

Central Asia's autocratic leaders have "state projects" of their own.

Although the majority of the region's inhabitants are Muslim, the countries are officially secular. Authorities are eager to keep signs of religious devotion under tight control because they fear that a threat to their power will come in the form of Islamic extremism.

Uzbekistan recently banned women from wearing the hijab in schools and universities in the country's south, where Islamic activity is on the rise.

Authorities also forbade women from wearing the head scarf during the country's Independence Day celebrations in early September, claiming that female terrorists could use the loose-fitting head scarf to conceal a bomb.

Many Muslim women say such restrictions border on the ludicrous. Aheda Zanetti, the creator of the burqini, thinks terrorism fears are no justification for the Uzbek crackdown on what she calls "a piece of cloth."

"I can hide a bomb in my undies," she says. "I can! I can walk around with my undies on and hide a bomb in them. Really. Bombs are getting smaller and sharper."

The Lebanese-born Zanetti, now an Australian citizen, says she got the idea for the burqini after reading about swimming in a full burqa, which is common in the Muslim world. Because the weight of the garment makes moving in the water difficult, swimming can become an inconvenience at best and a drowning hazard at worst.

The burqini can be a surprising sight to beachgoers accustomed to the more revealing swimwear favored in the West.

But Muriniso Alizoda, a journalist and women's activist in Tajikistan, says the modest Muslim swimsuit is nothing short of a human rights triumph -- especially in comparison to bikinis themselves.

"Look, I think one type of swimwear [the bikini] is actually less liberating than the other [the burqini], because a woman's rights are violated when men look lustfully at her," she says. "That's a violation. But in the burqini's case, I don't see any violation of human rights."

Bad Hijab

For women in Iran -- the only country to have both banned and enforced the hijab within two generations -- the issue of human rights comes down to the right to choose.

Starting in 1936, the hijab was banned by Iran's Pahlavi ruling monarchy, which also ushered in an era of improved women's rights, offering better education and work opportunities and better protection for women and families under the law.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, however, those advances saw an immediate rollback; the hijab was enforced for women almost overnight.

Iranian-American Azadeh Moaveni, the author of the best-selling memoirs "Honeymoon in Tehran" and "Lipstick Jihad," says many Iranian women feel imprisoned by the state's strict interpretation of what they can and cannot wear.

"I think even many religious women are democratically minded and open-minded enough not to want the state to impose religious dress," she says. "There's a lot of comfort in the Iranian women's movement with looking at it that way."

Fatemeh Haghighatjou, an observant Muslim and former member of the Iranian parliament who now lives in the United States, says that "politics play a great role" in regulations on Islamic dress, but most Iranian women agree that "women should be free."

In the years following the revolution, women wore severe, dark colors and kept their hair and neck completely covered. Such restrictions were supported by what Moaveni calls the "male, extremist political agenda" to create model Islamic citizens out of a population that was, in fact, "much more secular and sophisticated."

Younger Iranian women are increasingly pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable Islamic wear. But for women who came of age before the revolution, Moaveni says Islamic clothing restrictions have been grudgingly accepted as an inescapable diktat.

For these women, she says, "wearing 'fashionable' Islamic dress is possibly abhorrent" because "they just reject the idea so entirely that they're not willing to even individualize it and create their own style within it."

Personalizing Islamic wear "has fallen to the younger generation," she says, "who hasn't known anything else."

Today, many young women wear brightly colored scarves loosely wrapped around their heads or tied at the back. Some even dare to show a little neck. The latest trend is to style exposed hair at the top of the head, puffing it up in a fashion reminiscent of the 1960s.

The look, frequently accompanied by heavy makeup, even has a name -- "bad hijab." Significantly, bad hijab is spreading, along with a growing number of Iranian youth frustrated by the ruling regime and hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

With a majority of Iran's population due to come of age within the decade, trends like the "bad hijab" may prove a stumbling block for a regime keen on using Islamic dress for political purposes.

For now, Iran's Islamic fashion police are fighting back -- even requiring that storefront mannequins are appropriately dressed, wearing the hijab and with all "bodily curves" hidden.

RFE/RL's Tajik and Uzbek services contributed to this report

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