Written by Anna P. Kambhampaty and Danya Issawi
When Sagal Jama, student and content creator in Toronto, noticed that balaclavas were becoming a popular winter accessory, she was over the moon. “As the seasons change and the trends also change, I feel like I have to force my outfits to the conditions of wearing the hijab and my level of modesty,” she said.
She often had to make adjustments when trying to style trends that didn’t always work with her hijab, but with the balaclava she could participate comfortably, simply “by buying the item and slipping it on as it is”.
Jama, 21, bought five balaclavas and posted videos and photos of herself wearing them on her Instagram and TikTok accounts. But she realized that the trend was also leading to serious problems.
“You can take off a balaclava and ditch the trend, but race, religion and gender are things that someone can’t just wake up and ditch,” she said. “People can wear a balaclava and be seen as hip or cool, but a hijab can be seen as a symbol of oppression or politics.”
This season, the balaclava, a hood that covers the head and neck, has established itself as an essential piece of clothing. Several brands and department stores started selling them in different colors, silhouettes and materials, and they flooded social media.
Some TikTok creators have dedicated their profiles to crocheting elaborate and ornate versions of the accessory, and the “balaclava” hashtag has more than 121 million views on the app. Lirika Matoshi, a 25-year-old designer in New York who has been making hand-knit balaclavas for about a year, said she’s noticed a surge in sales recently.
“They weren’t selling that much, at first,” Matoshi said. A few months ago, however, “they just started selling way too much,” she added. “People loved them.”
The balaclava resembles a hijab, a religious headscarf worn by Muslim women. Scarves are usually worn to maintain modesty or serve as religious symbols, but can have different meanings depending on the wearer. Wearing a hijab is often a deeply personal experience.
Headscarves are also found in other religions and cultures. And while people wearing balaclavas are seen as fashionable today, Muslim women wearing the hijab are often discriminated against or viewed as backward.
Several parts of the western world have imposed restrictions on hijabs in recent years. In 2019, Quebec passed a law prohibiting teachers, police officers and other public sector workers from wearing religious symbols, including the hijab, at work. Last year, France voted to ban minors from wearing the hijab in public spaces, a restriction that was already in place for public schools.
“White people are considered non-threatening in the United States and Western Europe, so they have a lot more freedom to wear what they want,” said Anna Piela, author of “Wearing the Niqab” and visiting scholar at the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. “In the context of balaclava fashion, it’s not just whiteness — it’s white femininity that’s read as non-threatening.” Piela added that while the balaclava trend has been embraced by people of all racial backgrounds, “it’s the whiteness of some wearers that makes it mainstream, conventional.”
Maliha Fairooz, a graduate student in New York, noticed balaclavas were all over her TikTok feed. In December, after seeing a white woman post a video in a balaclava garnering thousands of likes on the platform, Fairooz, 28, responded in a video of her own, expressing how people wearing the garment could be treated differently depending on their race.
In an interview, Fairooz said she finds it ironic that people often view the hijab as retrograde or as a means of controlling women when “we argued that we choose to wear that, but with the balaclava nobody says , ‘You are oppressed to cover your hair.’ She added, “The color of your skin dictates how people will perceive you. Whether it’s cool and edgy, or whether it’s upside down.”
While wearing her hijab in public, Fairooz said she was the victim of hate crimes on several occasions. She was kicked at a train station once, and another time she was punched in the abdomen on her way to lunch. “I don’t know if people wearing balaclavas experience these things,” she said.
This phenomenon – of religious clothing or attire being fashionable when non-marginalized groups wear it while simultaneously putting an oppressed group of people at risk of persecution – is not new. In 2018, Gucci showed off a bright blue turban worn by white models during Milan Fashion Week. The turban had a retail price of nearly $800 and was advertised as “ready to turn heads while keeping you in comfort as well as in brand style”.
Elizabeth Bucar, a religion professor at Northeastern University and author of “Pious Fashion,” said it was “marketed as a symbol of cosmopolitan chic, even as Sikhs who wear turbans are subject to violence.”
With the trend of the balaclava today, and as modest fashion increasingly becomes a part of mainstream fashion, Bucar added, “Muslim women who cover their heads continue to face discrimination. and harassment. The popularity of a garment has not eradicated gendered Islamophobia.
But some veiled Muslim women see this trend as a potential path to a more conscious and empathetic understanding of the hijab.
Tayah Jabara, a 20-year-old content creator, hopes the trend can help people understand hijab. In a TikTok video, she said she basically welcomes the balaclava fashion, as long as unveiled balaclava wearers keep one thing in mind: if they feel warm, comfortable, safe or cute in their knit headscarf, she hoped they would understand that she feels the same wearing her hijab.
“I think when non-Muslim men or women or non-veiled people see hijabs, they see it as some kind of weird medieval punishment,” Jabara said in an interview. “When people are into trends that align with hijab standards, I’m all for it, because in my opinion, I want my modesty to be seen as a fashionable option.”
Matoshi, whose mother wears a hijab, designed balaclavas adorned with jewels, feathers and knitted teddy bears. She hopes her designs can help shed light on the headscarf and provide another avenue of accessorization for those who choose to cover their hair.
“I know that women who wear the hijab are often judged in society,” she said. “My mother has a hijab. I’m happy that women who have a hijab are finding something fun and creative to wear. Maybe that could be a way for people to see that as a good thing.
Yet, this remains a nuanced question. Leah Vernon, a 34-year-old content creator who has worn the hijab since she was 7, said she was criticized for her choice to wear a headscarf and that it prevented her from getting a job.
Seeing the balaclava become so popular now invokes “a feeling of, ‘Well, it’s so easy to wear it as a costume,'” she said. “So just putting it on and taking it off, I definitely feel some kind of slight betrayal.”
(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)
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