On the sweltering August streets of metropolitan Washington, sandals, short skirts and halter tops are seemingly de rigueur. Bare-legged women in the summer’s latest chiffon miniskirts crowd the Metro platform during rush hour. Yet not all women in the area are baring their arms and legs in the heat.
The Washington area’s diverse population includes Muslim women who follow the rules of Islam in their clothing choices, no matter how high temperatures soar. Many cover their arms, legs and neck in all seasons, and many cover their hair with a headscarf, or hijab.
U.S. Muslims number about 2.4 million (estimates vary), with about 250,000 in the Washington area, but no major fashion retail chain markets directly to Muslim women. As a result, many struggle to shop locally.
Bridging the gap for the “modest” or “Islamic” market are online vendors of Muslim-style and modest clothing, offering specialized designs in swimwear, sportswear and professional clothing. Previously, such items were available only from overseas Web sites and specialty stores.
“Finding the right style and material is difficult today,” said Zeena Altalib of Potomac Falls, founder and head designer at PrimoModa.com, an online store and in-home boutique. Shopping for modest clothes can be challenging and frustrating, said Altalib, who started Primo Moda in 2005 to meet the needs of her friends and family.
Dan Butler, vice president for retail operations at the National Retail Federation, disagreed, saying that major retail stores offer many options for Muslim customers. “Department stores carry long-sleeved shirts year-round, and a variety of lightweight cotton and poly fabrics,” Butler said. “I have seen that many off-the-rack pieces blend into Islamic wardrobes, which are often accented with traditional pieces from specialty shops and overseas.”
But in major retail stores, modesty is an afterthought, said Altalib, who also designs and sells swimsuits. “When designing modest clothing, ‘modesty’ has to be the main objective during each phase of the design and manufacturing process; it has to be the guiding principle at the beginning, middle and end.”
Alsharifa, another online store, based in Canton, Mich., does a brisk trade in modest swimsuits and colorful tunics. Kelly Alsharif, founder and chief executive, said there is a reason Muslim women are underserved by the fashion industry. “It doesn’t make business sense for a major retailer to cater to a specific minority when they don’t believe it would pay off across the board.”
Also, the fashion industry, Hollywood and advertisers discourage retailers from bucking the trend, Alsharif said, which “focuses on sexuality to attract buyers’ attention.”
Twenty percent of Alsharif’s swimsuit buyers are not Muslim, she said. They include Christians, Jews, those who worry about sun exposure and other women who want to dress modestly. “If a chain store were to carry clothing that appealed to these groups, they would have a very loyal customer base,” Alsharif said.
In the United States, most brick-and-mortar stores carrying traditional Islamic clothing are grocery stores with a tiny apparel aisle. The Khan el Khalili warehouse on Seminary Road in Falls Church has an entire floor of “Islamic clothing” and sells hundreds of colorful headscarves as well as modest skirts, dresses, pants and tops. Egyptian American owner Mohammed Khattab and his wife, Venetta, import shipments from Egypt every six months and follow Islamic fashion trends there, which “tend to be more creative and colorful than in other Muslim countries,” Khattab said. Egypt has long been an Arab-world trendsetter in music, film and fashion.
Designers and vendors of Islamic clothing agree that the right fabric makes all the difference in dressing for summer weather. “On a typical summer day, I choose a skirt and a cute tunic with a lightweight scarf that coordinates,” Alsharif said. “A popular staple in the Muslim lady’s wardrobe right now is the maxi dress with a body shirt underneath or a lightweight cardigan over the top.”
This year, Ramadan falls in the hottest season in the D.C. area, spanning August. Many Muslims won’t be swimming, because they would risk breaking the dawn-to-dusk fast if water accidentally enters the mouth. Before Aug. 1, area pools seemed to be as popular with Muslim families as everyone else.
Recently at a Reston apartment complex, an Iraqi family frolicked in the pool, the mother wearing a full-body swimsuit and attached headscarf. Amana Rashid, another Reston mother, wore a burqini, a full-coverage swimsuit designed by Aheda Zanetti of Sydney. “I love it,” Rashid said. “I can help my daughter learn how to swim. And no one has ever said anything negative about me wearing one. In fact, one person told me it was a good idea.”
Zanetti, 38, created the burqini in 2003. Born in Lebanon and raised in Australia, she was inspired to search for sporting garments suitable for Muslim women when she watched her niece playing netball in a traditional hijab. Zanetti said the burqini is “two-piece like a bikini and smaller than a burqa” (a traditional full-body cloak, sometimes including a face covering). The burqini and other “Islamic” swimsuits resemble wetsuits used for surfing or scuba diving, except they are available in various colors and styles.
Zanetti’s company, Ahiida, sells a variety of modest swimwear pieces, included fitted and loose styles. Demand has been overwhelming, Zanetti said. “At first there were not enough burqini swimsuits to go around!”
For American Muslim women and others, “the challenge lies in our ability as women to break away from being defined and dressed by those who are pushing women to show more by wearing less,” Altalib said. “Women of all ages should be liberated by choosing clothing that makes them feel secure, respected, comfortable and modest, not constantly on display for others to judge.
“As a Muslim woman, I wear clothes that are flattering, yet don’t show the details of my figure,” Alsharif said. “I do this because I believe that God has called upon Muslim women to conserve their beauty to those closest to her. So, one does not have to wear a miniskirt to look beautiful.”