Janice Breen BurnsÂ /The Age
“It’s about desexualising the public sphere”
Saara Sabbagh (front), wears silky smudge-green patterned maxi-dress with deeply ruffled hemline, chocolate jacklet and underscarf with draped latte headscarf. Nadine (left, rear), wears sunset-orange border print maxi-dress and Toltu Tufa (right), the sage floral maxi she modernised with Dotti denim vest and metallic silver sandals.
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THE graceful maxi-dress sashayed into fashion just in time for summer and in certain Muslim circles, the joy was palpable. “It’s fantastic,” says youth and community worker, Saara Sabbagh, 37, delighted. “We’re all out there, stocking up on maxis now.”
In shops from Supre to Sportsgirl and many small boutiques, summer’s crop of maxi-frocks is a rich and colourful windfall for many Muslim women. Not only that, many of the prettiest are still on sale. “I got this for, I think, $30,” says university student Nadine Sabbagh, 19. She shakes out the skirts of a silky, flame-orange floor-grazer that she has cleverly teamed with a nut-brown jersey bolero and terracotta silk headscarf.
Her friend, postgraduate psychology student Toltu Tufa, 22, is also a gifted editor of summer trends. She pulls on a cropped Dotti denim vest, giving a funky finish to the swathe of sage-green floral she’s matched to an airy silk headscarf, elegantly swag-draped almost to her waist at the front. She’s sharpened the green with crisp white sleeves and the visible two-finger-wide arc of an underscarf across her forehead. “I shop here and there â€” all over â€” to find what I want,” Ms Tufa says.
The Muslim ensemble may be more complicated than the average string-strapped sun frock and sandals, but she revels in the extra challenge. She says the chain stores are handy â€” particularly on a student’s budget â€” but also high among her favorite haunts are fabric outlets such as Spotlight.
“My sister can really sew, but you can also find some beautiful pieces you can use for scarves.” She demonstrates with a glorious length of bronze silk shot with pink lights. It’s been pinched into a three-dimensional textured pattern with tiny, regular stitches and Ms Tufa anchors it with an exotic webbed headpiece of bronze beads. “Gorgeous!’ declares photographer Melanie Faith Dove as Ms Tufa poses.
As an Australian Muslim, Saara Sabbagh and her young friends are talented cherry-pickers of seasonal fashion trends, adapting what they can to their definition of hijab. For the uninitiated, at its most fundamental level the Muslim dress code or hijab instructs men and women to dress modestly, mostly in loose garments that do not accentuate their body or overtly express sexuality.
“It’s about desexualising the public sphere,” explains Ms Sabbagh. (In the private sphere, the rules relax.) “It’s a boundary between the genders that promotes respect, and it’s an extension of your inner practices (of Islam) into the outer world; practices like honesty, and being loving, and being at peace with oneself and one’s faith and one’s community.” She says hijab can be interpreted in infinite ways by personal choice and by Muslims in various cultures internationally.
“But even that is a personal choice,” she says. “Although hijab is a commandment in Islam, ultimately it is a woman’s choice to embrace it or choose not to practise it according to (her) individual spiritual journey. There are Muslims who choose not to wear the scarf at all, and some who choose to wear a complete covering, including the face. It doesn’t mean they’re more devout or that others aren’t. It’s just their choice.”
Like many Muslims, Ms Sabbagh, a mother of three, is well acquainted with the misunderstanding occasionally triggered by those choices in Australian communities. “Particularly after September 11,” she recalls, head shaking. “I wondered â€” I just couldn’t believe â€” how a statement of faith (hijab) could be so misunderstood.”
Instead of dwelling on the problem, she resolved to solve it using one of her favourite disciplines: fashion. Now, for almost eight years, My Dress, My Image, My Choice, a fashion show and forum for Muslim and non-Muslim women to talk about the issues in their lives and draw comfort from each other, has regularly led to full houses of 200 to 300 enthusiastic women.
“We use fashion to bring them together,” Ms Sabbagh says. And, with further funding from the the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the forum is now travelling to Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Tasmania where similar crowds are turning up to see how women such as Ms Tufa, Saara and Nadine Sabbagh and others capitalise on the graceful and elegant potential of hijab. Despite the breadth of individual looks, common to every interpretation of hijab is an approach to fashion markedly different to the mainstream’s obsession with flesh. It’s a difference that triggers some curiosity â€” positive and negative â€” among non-Muslims. In summer, for example, how do Muslims stay cool? In fact, they switch to lighter, breezier fabrics and the effect is probably cooler than the average micro-mini. For Muslim swimmers, there are also specialised garments such as the Burqini, by Sydney designer Aheda Zanetti.