The Colourful Hijab of the African Muslimah

The Darfur Sartorialist is an exhibition launched by Portuguese urban engineer, humanitarian and photographer Pedro Matos to showcase the colourful clothing and trendy fashion sense of women in Darfur, Sudan.

Photo from the Darfur Sartorialist (source).

Matos was in Darfur for three and a half years with the World Food Programme when he started taking these photographs in a country where it is apparently forbidden to do so. Initially surprised by the style and fashion that thrives in Darfur, contrary to Western images of the region as poor and suffering, as well as the freedom women enjoyed in Darfur, some of which he witnessed in the easy way men and women flirted with each other, Matos realised that fashion is not exclusive to Rome or New York.  It took the fashion of Darfuri women to enable Matos to realise that reality is more complex than the cliché of the oppressed, conservatively dressed and constantly fearful Muslim woman or of Darfur as a region associated with war, refugees and tragedy.

Upon confronting his personal conceptions of refugees, and of oppressed Muslim women, Matos began taking photos and was further surprised by the “Western gestures” some women took when posing for photographs. He was driven to sharing these photographs with fellow Westerners under the banner of the Darfur Sartorialist, loosely based on Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist, a blog dedicated to the intersection between fashion and “daily life”. With the tagline “Darfur is fashionable. Beyond the conflict and the images engraved in our minds lies a proud people wearing colour combinations unlikely in the trendy West”, the Darfur Sartorialist aims to counter Western stereotypes of Muslim and African women. At once, the photos of fashionably dressed women in Darfur should lead viewers to question perceived notions of the oppressed Muslim women and the hopeless African continent. We are meant to see that African Muslim women, like Western women, are also concerned about how they look, and on a wider scale Africans are similar to Westerners despite the issues in the Islamic world.

Photo from the Darfur Sartorialist (source).

Good intentions of the Darfur Sartorialist aside, some of the reporting show examples of how not to write about Africa, with a Muslim twist. In the land of suffering, a European is surprised to see smiling faces and so much colour. He then starts taking photographs and amasses a large number over time which he wants to share to other Westerners so that they can challenge their ideas of Sudan and Muslim women’s clothing. It should not be unusual that style and fashion can be found inDarfur, or there are people in refugee camps who smile and are hopeful for the future.

It is interesting that when the subject of African Muslim women and fashion reaches the West, colours becomes a central theme. Last year in reporting the Dakar Fashion Week 2012, Yahoo! News suggested that colourful fashion was too much for the Islamists who had captured several towns in northern Mali, and enforced a strict version of Sharia law. Eren analysed this as a case of women fromMali using fashion as a form of resistance. Although in Mali, the fashion of Muslim women may have been too colourful for the Islamists, the surprise that struck Pedro Matos, when he encountered Darfuri women dressed in colourful clothes, suggests that the hijab of Sudanese women is too colourful for Western ideas of a Muslim woman’s clothing.

Before being shocked that Muslim women wear colourful clothes, it is necessary to bear in mind that interpretations on what counts as modesty are very much based on culture.

Photo from the Darfur Sartorialist (source).

From the perspective of this Nigerian Muslim, colourful clothes are not necessarily unconservative for Muslim women and colourfully dressed African Muslim women are not new or strange. In Nigeria, where most people dress in flashy colours and shiny jewellery, Muslim women are not to be left aside. Standard clothing that identifies a woman as a Muslim in Nigeria, if not the hijab as influenced by Middle Eastern styles, would be skirts and blouses sewn from West African wax printed fabric in elaborate and varied designs, usually accompanied with equally colourful veils wrapped around the shoulders and/or head.

The colourful, stylish clothing of (non-Muslim) Africans has attracted Western attention in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the streets of West Africa, for example. Now we are seeing the same Western amazement, except with Muslim women. Muslim women can be found wearing colorful clothing in really any African country; to have expected that Muslim women in Sudan would wear clothes that were conservative reveals that African Muslimahs are not free from stereotypes attached to Muslim women’s clothing in other parts of the world that assumes all head covering are oppressive and monochrome coloured.

Could there be something about colourfully clothed Muslimahs that makes Westerners think that Muslim women are not as oppressed at they thought? The Darfur Sartorialist seems to suggest so. In this case, colour seems to be a sign of a liberated Muslim woman, and bold fashion styles reveal the complex realities of poor Africans, specifically poor African Muslims.


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