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Hijabistas: A Lesson in Cultural Activism

May 15th, 2010 | 4 min read

By Tex

I happened to run across a “human interest” piece at the BBC today with a title bound to attract a high number of curious in-clicks: “Muslim designers mix hijab with the latest fashions”.  Lady Gaga’s “Fashion” pulses in the background while a hijab-wearing BBC reporter interviews Hana Tajima Simpson on how to blend modesty, head scarves, and haute-couture.  Fascinating.

Even more fascinating than the piece (and the out-clicks to various Muslim-fashion blogs) is the self-assurance and confidence in identity, style, and practice exhibited by these women—it’s the sort of confidence that most evangelical moms wish their teenage daughters had, and the sort of assurance that makes an otherwise odd, unpopular, or even outlandish practice appealing.

Change the scene to evangelical sub-culture and you see the difference by contrast.  Thousands and thousands of pop songs produced by Christian musicians all suffer from being a mimicry of the latest sounds on the Top 40 charts.  Christian filmmakers consistently turn out flicks that are either indistinguishable from Hollywood’s mill productions, or best-suited for replaying on the Hallmark station.  Evangelicals across America often seem better at adapting to their culture then changing it—if you doubt me, spend an evening with your local evangelical church youth group or chaperone their summer camp.  I’m not the first to have pointed out the contrast as it is somewhat of a “Perennial Theme”,  but it’s worth noting, especially given the continued growth of Muslim communities in Western countries, that where Christians have adapted and perished, Muslims are drawing a line in the sand and thriving despite the difference.

So, why have evangelicals fallen into the habit of either making peace with their surrounding culture or utterly rejecting their surrounding culture, but rarely creating a culture of their own?  Mere O’s Matt Anderson takes this question head-on in his 2009 article in The City, and offers an interesting answer: evangelicals accept secular culture as the fundamental ground of human existence.  This solution, while helpful in understanding some of the ills plaguing evangelicals in America, obscures the fact that there yet remains something common to all human beings regardless of their religious persuasion.  This commonality between men is the foundation for a universal culture that cannot be regionalized by offering competing, and independent, cultural paradigms.  Anderson suggests that the right way to think about culture is in terms of religion—a religious culture, or a culture that includes religion (and probably supernaturally revealed religion), is the fundamental ground of human existence.  I’m inclined to agree, to a point.  But humans are humans...and all of the cultures they create will be informed by and adapted to the fundamental similarities that they share whether or not they make room in their worldview for religion.  While evangelicals may have accepted one culture, a secular one, as fundamental and then attempted to accessorize it into compliance with Christianity (or reject it completely), the solution to their predicament is not to posit an alternative culture as the ground of human existence and engage in fierce culture wars.

The difference between the hijabistas and the Amy Grants of evangelicalism lies in their response to and use of the artifacts created by the culture around them.  Evangelical Christians have tended to either fear and shun cultural artifacts or openly embrace them, as if the only thing to do with a secular object is either paint it over with Christian graffiti or enshrine it in their churches.  Compared to these two responses of total rejection or acceptance, the new trend in the Muslim fashion world looks positively brilliant.  Neither modifying core ethical tenants to blend with the secular culture nor demanding a complete withdrawal from the secular culture, the trendsetting Muslims are creating something that is new and identifiably different, and yet accepts that commonalities remain between women.

The successes of modest Muslim women on international catwalks suggest that subversion is a powerful tool for carving out space for a different kind of culture.  Accepting that beauty and creativity are universally valued, the Islamic fashionistas are making waves and garnering respect for presenting a distinct and positive interpretation to those universal values.  It is by drawing upon the common ground that unites Muslim women with secular women that the hijabistas are finding not only a voice, but a sympathetic ear and opportunity to present their culture to the world on their terms.

Rather than pit religious culture against secular culture in a zero-sum game, evangelicals might take a cue from those who are besting us at our own game: taking a stand for what is right, and doing it so winsomely and attractively that your enemy finds himself becoming your friend.  After all, it was Jesus Himself, the Light of the world and the very Word of God—Truth Himself—who became the friend of sinners.  And trust me, it wasn’t because he adopted their lifestyle and culture as his own.