The Mohawk Hijab and the Chanel Abaya

Kecya Felix, a Brazilian stylist/designer, wore a fake Chanel niqab and abaya and an iPad around her neck which played “Could Coco Chanel Create This Look?” at Sao Paulo Fashion Week.

Kecya Felix
Kecya Felix wearing the abaya.

As this article puts it, Felix intended to “make a statement” through the performance, wearing ”a fake Chanel Muslim garment” and, apparently, losing the ability to speak, (although her hearing remained unaffected):

I approached Felix to ask what she was all about. She shook her head and pointed towards her boyfriend, American Ryan Donnelly, who was functioning as her voice for the ever growing throngs of showgoers who stopped, intrigued, to find out more about Felix and her provocative outfit.

Remaining mute throughour her performance in her fake Chanel abaya, Felix explained later in an artistic statement written in the third person that her project is “about sexism in clothes”:

“Kecya traveled to the Middle East looking for references on that issue out there…she found a fake Chanel Muslim garment…which she considers controversial for the women’s expression in present days. She then decided to have an experience wearing the Islamic pieces–the fake Chanel niqab and abaya to create art performance.”

Part of what makes the abaya “controversial” is that for some people it would be considered unusual, the abaya as a “Muslim garment” seen as a signifier of anachronistic backwardness, juxtaposed with the interlocking CC of Coco Chanel – as the article asks: “did you know such a thing existed?” As someone who did know such a thing existed and who is familiar with these types of abayas in the context of everyday life, it was initialy disconcerting that this “garment” would be disconcerting enough that putting it on would be described as “having an experience.”  That, and the mute-performance, brings to mind the experiences of women such as French journalist Elizabeth Alexandre who tried on niqab for a week for her article “Ma semaine en Niqab” (My Week in a Niqab) – essentially performing a niqabi woman by putting on the niqab.

The interlocking CC’s on a abaya do raise interesting questions about the intersections of fashion, sexism and religon. Why would women wear fake Chanel abayas? Why would this seem incongrous to some people? How does someone’s background affect how they react to this piece of clothing? The only question Felix seems to be asking however, is “Could Coco Chanel Create This Look?” Her question, like her statement, positions the abaya as a “garment” from “out there” – from a world outside the bounds of Chanel and Sao Paulo Fashion week. “Can it be brought into our world, without said world imploding?” the iPad Felix wears ponders.

The article asks its own questions, including: “Is a fake Chanel hijab degrading to women?” The discourse invoked is tied to a notion of freedom which assumes the “Muslim Other” to be repressed and guided by antiquated and oppressive gender norms. It reminds me of reactions to the picture of a Muslim girl with a mohawk-like hijab: She can’t show her hair, but she can show her punk soul!

Punk Muslim Girl

The sentence positions the mohawk-hijab girl as the universal Muslim woman, constructed as a victim of dogmatic beliefs. The implication is that what she has been deprived of the right to be what she longs to be, and yet is doing her best to express herself within an oppressive environment. Admire her, or alternatively, think: this is sad/pathetic.

Before reading the reactions, my own reaction to the mohawk hijab was to see it as “making a statement” which equates the hijab with the mohawk along the lines of non-conformity, the unfamiliar and the unconventional sewn into one. Of course, what we think we already know determines what our reactions will be and my interpretation is just that: an interpretation. But, like the Chanel abaya, to me the mohawk hijab seemed to me a product of cosmopolitan culture, having to do with the creation a self-image through clothing in today’s hybridized world, and thus less incongruous than some would make it out to be.

What does seem incongruous to me is when that focus on incongruity is turned into an exercise in back-patting which pits the values of “freedom” against “Muslim culture” invoking binaries which have always been dysfunctional, which increasingly seem hopelessly outdated, and yet remain frustratingly persistent.

  • http://thecowation.blogspot.com/ Jordan A.

    This is a very interested post. I very much agree with you that people have a unilateral view of Muslim culture, particular of how women are treated in those societies, as “not free” and “needing to be liberated.” It just seems very funny that the designer is making this statement without taking a broad view – if she looked at hijabs and other head coverings worn by South Asian women and African women, she would find color and pattern that show much creative self-expression. There are different ways of pinning and tying it, also. Does it mean that they are inherently “oppressed” when they don an outfit that they enjoy? Should we call all married women who wear a ring the “property” of their husband? Both of these can be forms of self-expression and signals that one adheres to a group norm. I hate that the assumption that Muslim culture is regressive makes clothing a battleground against “modern” and “backward” – true, some countries require it in the plainest form, but those governments should be the ones that are challenged, not the wearers.
    I talk a little bit more about this at my blog in a post called Denim and Black Cloth: Feminism and Female Expression, because feminists are not exempt from this type of thinking either. Thanks again for the great post!

    Jordan Alam
    The Cowation (http://thecowation.blogspot.com/)

  • Heather

    If you follow the links Kecya posted at the bottom of the article’s page, you find several videos she’s posted on the topic. The one titled “The Black Desert of the Stonewoman” makes the point of her performance/character much clearer. She is indeed critiquing the fashion industry – by stating that abaya/niqab eliminates women’s freedom. On this video, the question asked is not translated as “Could Coco Chanel Create This Look” but as “Should…”, a significant difference. This is the link to the “Black Desert” slideshow, which also includes her other videos as/about her niqabi ‘Stonewoman’ character. http://www.vimeo.com/24648724

    And I certainly agree that the significant questions, of WHY women wish to wear a Chanel abaya and what implied status that might lend the wearer within particular social contexts, are being completely ignored.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Sometimes when I write a piece for MMW, I send it to Fatemeh and say “I hope you like it, my initial reaction to the article was lots of swearing, so I had to work quite hard to move beyond that.”

    Enough gubbins about ‘Stonewoman characters’, non Muslims donning Muslim – associated clothes to push negative steretypes about Muslim women is not thought provoking, anymore then wearing blackface is and it is just as offensive.

    Mohowk girl on the other hand, is uber cool.

  • Tasnim

    Great points, and thanks for the links! Dividing women’s clothing into liberating/oppressive is reductive, and as this case shows, it fails to account for anything hybrid. The designer’s “performance with Islamic pieces” suggests the potential for more open-minded explorations of how religion and fashion and feminism interact, but doesn’t go there. As Heather said, that’s even clearer in the video, with the tired trick of de-veiling to music and the equation of the veil with bondage. What’s ironic about this is that the Chanel abaya is in my experience often worn by well-educated, privileged young women as an easy outfit for the mall. It would be interesting to look at it in the wider context Jordan A talks about, especially with the growing hijabi fashion market, eg this article http://fds.duke.edu/db/attachment/1497 which looks at new forms of “Islamic capitalism” and the Islamic culture industry from lifestyle magazines to fashionable hijab. In comparison, posing in an abaya in the desert seems to be a case of have your cake and eat it – pose for some orientalist shots with veil,then conclude the veil is evil: essentially the two sides of the seductive/oppressed Muslim woman stereotype. The comparison with blackface makes absolute sense in this case.

  • Ayeshter

    I think the big problem here is how Muslim woman’s dress is percived as apposed to the intent of the Muslim women themselves in donning either the Chanel Abaya or the “Hijabhawk.” The most frustrating aspect no matter how a Muslim woman chooses to express her individualty, it is either rebuffed (the Chanel Abaya) or met with patronizing attitudes (Hijadhawk). It’s like the words of Sartre “I can’t escape the gaze of the Other, he undresses me, he constructs my naked body.” However, I must admit, I do like what the Hijabhawk is trying to say. I mean, yes, her head dress could be read into by thous holding an Orientalist gaze…yet to me, I see it as challenging ideas orientalist ideas on Muslim woman. I don’t think she is necessarily playing into Western modes of oppression, for, at least in my experience, the mohawk, when worn by woman especially, is a rejectionist statement towards conventionally held notions of female beauty, as perpetuated by the fashion industry. The hijab could (and often is) be read that way too. Although I’m sure both elements of my argument could be readily critiqued (the sybolism of the Mohawk and the hijab) and I know there are counter examples, my point is that I don’t see the hijabhawk as a bad thing and the problem is what conclusions are reached in the eyes of the beholder.


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