Ermal Hajrizi

The Faces of Islam at Yale

Ermal Hajrizi
The Faces of Islam at Yale

By Fatima Chugtai

Hijab. Beard. These are the first couple images that often come to mind when many in the Western world hear the word “Muslim.” Many citizens of the world, including Americans, live in fear of terrorists who let their beards grow long and don robes in the name of religion. Meanwhile, it has become increasingly more prevalent to wear one’s religion on one’s sleeve. Now more than ever, I acknowledge my privilege in rarely appearing Muslim. I have never been ashamed of my religion, but I haven’t made it a matter of public discourse. I pray in the privacy of my room just as I grew up doing, treating religion as a spiritual, personal connection.  However, my face presents only one face of Islam

People commonly believe that fashion is a way of expressing one’s identity, or in other words, a public declaration of oneself.  Muslims are not exempt from this belief. Islam is only one of many facets of the Muslim identity. Culture, home, and education are some of the other factors that influence Yale students and their identities. From adopting the classic Gossip Girl fashion from prep schools to being influenced by hip hop culture to creating an edgy Kanye style, Muslims come in no single shape or form.

Contrary to what many people believe, Islam does not force any one garb upon Muslims. Instead, there are ideals of modesty that vary from individual to individual. Modesty does not necessarily refer to a specific physical quality, but rather is a “sense of humbleness and humility…that allows one to achieve spiritual perfection represented through the outer self and reflected in one’s dress” in the opinion of Saad Syed, Yale ’16. That dress is seen in a variety of ways throughout the world and at Yale.

Nafeesa Abuwala ’19 chooses to prioritize comfort above all else but changes her clothing depending on the environment, as many others do. She chooses to dress somewhat professionally here with influences from her Indian culture such as gold jewelry and bright accentuating colors. She chooses not to dress with traditional Islamic conservatism, but she culturally identifies with the religion through her family. Her decision to not wear the hijab or other traditional articles does not change her belief that Islam is a beautiful religion and the Quran holds importance in her life.  She tries to fit in with the community by dressing out of respect for the comfort of others but not changing herself.

Naima Amraan ’20 similarly prioritizes comfort but adds a cultural twist from Kenya. Amraan chooses to wear a headscarf but in the form of an African wrap rather than the traditional hijab. It allows her to simultaneously embrace her culture and religion. Her hijab may not appear to be a traditional Islamic head covering, but its appearance does not diminish its religious or emotional value. Amraan’s hijab is essential to her identity.  After an incident where she chose not to wear it and was not recognized by someone she knew, Amraan realized “she cannot run away from who she is because she is uncomfortable without it now and it is part of her identity.”

Amraan’s personal interpretation of the hijab can be contrasted with a different but also valid perspective. Hafsa Abdi ’20 feels that the hijab is not only a fashionable statement but also a political one. Despite the implications associated with the hijab in a world that fears Islam for its connection to extremism and terrorism, Abdi also agrees that “taking it away would be to lose a part of herself” and she is grateful for the conversations it has spurred regarding her faith.

Abrar Omeish ’17 is an example of Islamic feminism, reclaiming traditional, conservative Islamic values in order to feel liberated. Her fashion is highly influenced by her faith: she chooses to wear loose fitting dresses and skirts or abayas, which are long, full covering robes, on a daily basis. She believes “it prevents her from falling into self-consciousness.” Feminism involves rebelling  from the pressure to conform to commercialized societal norms, and Omeish rejects these pressures by adapting her fashion to her religion and comfort. One of the most liberating things for her is that she can wear whatever she wants underneath her abaya for herself and only herself.

Thus far it may seem that religiosity determines conservatism or the decision to wear the hijab, but that trend does not hold true for women on campus such as Mahrukh Shahid ’18 or Tasnim Elboute ’17. Shahid is an international student from Pakistan and, while her faith is important, the hijab is a deep internal conflict for her. She chose to wear it at one point in her life, and, despite the fact that she still struggles with her decision, she chooses not to wear one currently.  Shahid chooses to dress in conservative clothing and, at times, cultural clothing, but she does not embrace any strict guidelines or religious dress codes. Elboute strives to find “a balance between beauty and modesty” and actually more deeply embraced her religion after reading about Islamic feminist movements. Her ethnic background also surfaces occasionally in her day-to-day wear through patterns, scarves, skirts, etc. She loves the rising trend of Muslim high fashion as seen through the Dolce & Gabbana hijab and abaya collection and a host of other fashion lines. This new emergence gives Muslim women the right to own their religion and their personalities in any way they desire. There is no one type of Muslim woman.

Muslim men have commonly been exempt from religious stereotyping, at least in terms of clothing. There are rarely ways to directly identify a Muslim male aside from the assumptions that can be made from race or cultural garments. The few symbols of Muslim men are kufis, which are short, brimless, rounded caps, and the stereotypical beard. There are some men on campus that choose to grow their beards or wear kufis, but there are a variety of other styles present.

Mohammed Karabatek ’19 spoke about the development of his fashion sense from the preppy uniform enforced by his school’s dress code to his current hip-hop-influenced style. As much as he enjoys this style now, there are some religious boundaries he holds dear, such as avoiding gold jewelry, which is prohibited for men in Islam. He chooses to have a beard at Yale but not for religious reasons. Rather, he wants to emulate the men in his family who sport beards. Today, he shaves his beard for formal events such as Eid, a major Islamic holiday. While he is no longer as devout as he was, he chooses to wear the keffiyeh, a checkered scarf worn around the head or neck primarily in the Arab world, when he prays. The keffiyeh has progressed from a cultural symbol to an accessory present in high fashion and trendy wear. The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation in Western fashion is tested once more with the adoption of the keffiyeh. There continues to be a lack of understanding behind the scarf’s symbolism.

Chris Woodhead ’20 is a recent convert to Islam and has changed his dress code in subtle ways for his religion. Traditionally, men are supposed to cover their legs to their ankles for prayer.  Chris recalls wearing shorts to his conversion ceremony, something he laughs about now. To refrain from changing five times a day, he has chosen to stop wearing shorts. He also chooses to grow his beard for religious piety, whereas Rashid Akbari ’20 chooses to have one for fashion as well as a religion. Beards have come into fashion recently, which further refutes the stereotype of the beard as purely a sign of religious piety.

Mujtaba Wani ’17 favors classic menswear with touches of modernity and culture. Religion and fashion became intertwined for him when one of his religious icons came to Yale sporting an uber fashionable suit, leaving Mujtaba to wonder about how someone so religious could be so stylish. From teachings that emphasize that material possessions should not hold great value, he came to realize that one should dress “to their stature and for respect, not to attract attention”. He wears a ring imprinted with the shahada, a profession of faith, every day and grows a beard because he feels that it is an identifying marker for a Muslim male.

Gathe Kiwan, ’17, on the other hand, is rarely influenced by his culture or religion when it comes to choosing clothing. He chooses to wear whatever feels most comfortable because he believes Islam and popular Western culture to rarely conflict when it comes to what is acceptable for a male to wear. This choice does not affect his religious beliefs because he does not believe physical appearance to be a focal point.

Many Muslims take ethical norms into huge consideration, regardless of personal definitions of those norms. Ethics can originate from a person’s culture, ethnicity, home, and religion. For Arda Boga ’19, ethical norms center around elegance and simplicity, as they do in his home country of Turkey. His clothing is influenced less by traditional Islamic ideals and more by Turkish cultural norms. Secularism within the country has allowed for more of a European influence and set of ideals to create a unique culture. In contrast, he believes that the US does not have a defined culture within itself. Aesthetics here are drastically different. For him, it has been a strange transition into American fashion, where colorful simplicity is not as prioritized as it was in Turkey.

Whether their clothing is Western, stereotypically religious, or ethnic, these students preserve their identities in various ways:  wearing cultural clothing at the Eid Banquet, cherishing family heirlooms, or sporting a new trend. All of these different people have their own beliefs about Islam, whether viewing it as a strict guideline for life or a spiritual belief system for support. There is no one way to interpret religious values or the impact of religion on physical appearance. Muslims uphold themselves to their own standards in the same way that every other person does. Religion may influence some decisions that concern conservatism, modesty, and physical appearance, but rarely in the same way across the board. While the people mentioned in this article may be a small sampling and not representative of all, these are the faces of Islam at Yale.