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Two sides of the same coin: The balaclava and the hijab

By Manahil Hassan, February 3 2022—

“Look who paved the way for statement-making avant-garde.” This is online retailer Yandy’s description of Kim Kardashian’s “dark and mysterious” 2021 Met Gala look, which was transformed into a Halloween costume. Not only did her Met Gala look literally turn heads, but Kardashian’s outfit was described as fashion forward, dramatic and obscure. Pictures of her attire plagued the internet and her look went viral. Her all black ensemble consisted of a black Balenciaga t-shirt dress over a catsuit, and a black face mask. 

Despite how fashion-forward her outfit may have seemed to everyone, something must be said about the uncanny resemblance of Kardashian’s Met Gala outfit and the burqa. The theme of last year’s Met Gala was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” Many guests arrived at the event wearing political statements on their designer dresses or wearing gowns inspired by fashion icons such as Audrey Hepburn.

The reality television star, however, showed up in an outfit which was nothing more than a burqa and called it “American Fashion.” She joked by saying “What’s more American [than] a T-shirt head to toe?!” And everyone accepted her explanation. But the fact is, her outfit is not considered American fashion. If a woman was wearing a burqa down the street, she would be chastised for wearing barbaric or oppressive clothing. No one would consider it to be American fashion. No one would call her outfit revolutionary and fashion-forward.

Quite frankly, I believe that Kim Kardashian’s outfit was tone-deaf and hypocritical given the way the western world views Muslim women that cover themselves. I found her look to be quite disrespectful and ignorant of all the trauma that veiled Muslim women have experienced. Nevertheless, fashion designers are now drawing inspiration from her “innovative” and “legendary” look to introduce a new winter trend — the balaclava.

The balaclava, also known as a ski mask, has been worn for decades by troops in battle, skiers and anyone that wishes to stay warm during the winter. It is a tight fitted accessory typically made of wool that covers your head, shoulders and neck. Although some people have embraced this trend with open arms, there remain many individuals that are skeptical about this new style, including myself. 

The balaclava bears a striking resemblance to the hijab and niqab and my biggest issue is with the double standards reserved for the balaclava and the hijab or niqab. A woman that is wearing the hijab is labelled as oppressed and in desperate need of saving from religious extremism. But a white, non-Muslim woman wearing the balaclava is called fashionable and trendy.

A Muslim woman is called barbaric and finds herself the target of hate speech and potential assaults, whilst a veiled nun is treated with respect. The reality is that two people adorning the same garments are being treated differently solely because of race and religion. 

Take Kardashian as another example who was commended and acclaimed for her so-called brave fashion choice and was labeled as a fashion icon by influencers and social media users all over the world. Comparatively, a woman that chooses to wear a burqa is shunned for covering herself from head to toe. While other people have the right to bodily autonomy, a woman wearing a hijab, niqab or a burqa is denied that right. 

The irony of it all is that the very people that supported the right to ban the burqa and hijab in countries like France and Switzerland are now applauding Kardashian for wearing the same thing. It is clear that expressing your religious views is not accepted in Europe and North America. Women that wish to wear the hijab, niqab, or the burqa are not granted bodily autonomy because their garments do not abide by these strict western ideals. We are not granted bodily autonomy because of the fine line between being fashionable and an extremist. 

One can wear a balaclava, or essentially a burqa like Kim Kardashian did, and no one will bat an eye because it’s in the name of fashion. Yet, if a woman wishes to express her religious beliefs by wearing a hijab, she is deemed an extremist. She is isolated from the rest of society. Moreover, the secularist politics in Europe have successfully instilled a fear in most people towards Muslims. The banning of religious headwear by political leaders has sent a clear message to everyone else — that Muslims are to be feared. By snatching our right to bodily autonomy, these political officials are enabling islamophobia and the oppression of Muslim women by informing everyone that we deserve to be treated differently because of how much of a threat we are to the public. What they fail to realize is that they are suppressing and persecuting us just as much as the Islamic fundamentalists do. The only difference between the ideals of the Taliban and these secularist politicians is that they live in different parts of the world. 

I can vividly remember being a 16-year-old Muslim girl coming from Oman to Canada. I worried for hours about moving here because I did not want to experience more racism than I already had. Due to my past experiences, I refused to wear the hijab out of fear of getting treated differently. Looking back, I can even remember one of the first few experiences I had with microaggressions. It was in Oman and I was 12, on a camping trip with all my classmates. It was nighttime, and we were having dinner a couple of hours before going to bed. I was tired and decided to wear my hood over my hair instead of wrapping my scarf around my head.

I didn’t think it was a big deal because everyone was dressed in their pyjamas. Our principal, however, told me to take off my hood because it was “inappropriate” to wear during dinnertime. At the time, it did not seem to be a big deal so I took it off, but there is a reason this interaction remained in my mind all these years later. It is an example of how even as a kid living in the Middle East, I did not fully have the choice to wear whatever I wanted. Even then, I was expected to abide by the Western ideals of what is deemed appropriate and inappropriate to wear in a dining hall of all places. Nothing has changed after all these years. 

Just a week ago, my mom and I experienced something similar. We were traveling back to Calgary and were at the security desk at the Vancouver airport. The security officer was annoyed at me and my mom before she asked her to take off her “bandana” to check what she was hiding. I was hurt after this happened because I felt alienated at that moment. I felt that all those times where I believed I was just like everyone else, was just a ruse. I was naive to believe this, because the fact is, no matter how much I contribute to society, I will never fully belong. No matter what, I will never feel comfortable enough in my own skin to stop worrying about experiencing racism and islamophobia. 

The significance of my experience is to provide an insight into the issues that myself and thousands of other women face every single day. It is to increase awareness of the double standards and hypocrisy we are forced to swallow and accept simply because that is the way life is. In addition to this, it is frustrating to see countries in the Global North present themselves as supporters of women’s rights when they do not extend the same support to Muslim women.

It is frustrating to see countries such as Canada or France criticize other countries for oppressing women, when they are doing the exact same thing but for a different cause. It shouldn’t matter if a woman chooses to wear a bikini or a burkini. It shouldn’t matter if a woman chooses to cover her head or not because — at the end of the day — it is their choice. If you fight for autonomy for women in nations such as Afghanistan, then you should uphold those same principles yourself within the societies you live in as well. 

The way we consciously — or subconsciously — treat veiled individuals has detrimental effects in the long run. Slowly, our community is becoming desensitized to the misogynistic and racist treatments at the hands of other people. Instead of educating others and amplifying our voices, we simply sit back and accept the unfair treatment being handed to us. Ask yourself why our head coverings are tolerated only when high-end fashion designers decide they are. Ask yourself why we wait for representation in the media and the fashion industry, to get treated with the basic human decency that we deserve.

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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