Balancing Religious Sensitivity, Fashion Sense

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 29, 2005

"Isn't this so cute?" cooed Hiba Khan, admiring a loose-knit vest glimmering with a sequined brown collar at Tysons Corner Center's LVL X clothing store. Sexy, the 21-year-old Fairfax City resident admitted, but that's easily remedied with a long-sleeve top and a properly fastened head scarf.

In the hip young Muslim crowd, modesty is always in.

"I usually try not to buy anything too flashy or too revealing, but yeah, I want to look nice," she said while at the mall one recent afternoon for a little back-to-school shopping.

With summer coming to a close and classes about to start, she and a half-dozen other college students were in search of "sister-friendly" clothes -- attire that conforms to Islamic dictates but appeals to a contemporary sense of style and beauty.

But sticking to Islamic standards of modesty isn't always easy, and it doesn't always come naturally to girls raised in the United States, where MTV and Hollywood are more likely than religious texts to set fashion standards. Choosing to follow Islam's clothing guidelines is often the result of a deep desire for cultural identity or religious soul-searching -- especially for young women such as Khan, who as a teenager decided on her own to adopt the clothing standards of her religion.

That doesn't mean she and other young Muslim women want to put aside a desire to be pretty.

"We want to look beautiful, but we don't have that pressure to be sexy," said Khan's friend Khadija Amjad, 21, of Centreville, dressed in a sleek black-and-purple ensemble that stretched to her ankles. The outfit was topped by a pink-and-purple hijab , or head scarf.

Estimates of the number of Muslims in the United States vary from 3 million to 7 million. About 150,000 live in the Baltimore-Washington area, according to the American Religion Data Archive.

Muslims, men and women, are required by their holy book, the Koran, to be modest in their attire, Islamic scholars said. How the guidelines are interpreted varies by geography and family tradition, from simply avoiding form-fitting or revealing clothes to covering oneself with a head-to-toe burqa .

"The whole thing goes back to the presence of God," said Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University. "You need to be in a state of decorum. You must ask yourself: How would God like to see me?"

Rika Prodhan, 22, a recent graduate of George Washington University, never worried too much about her form-fitting outfits and cascading hair when she was growing up in Houston. But as she matured into an observant young Muslim woman, a nagging voice in the back of her head grew louder. She recalls it telling her that the Koran was unambiguous -- the body, including the hair, should be well covered.

While in college, she gradually adjusted her wardrobe to better reflect her religious convictions, eventually purging it of clothes that revealed her ankles or wrists. Finally, after much introspection, she began wearing the hijab, a big step that she knew would forever change the way she was perceived in public.

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