March 5, 2013
By Robin Kirk and Mary Lagdameo
A little girl’s dress-up play inspired ICS major Mihret Woldesemait’s interest in the hijab, the covering used throughout the Middle East and by Muslim women.
Woldesemait, who spent part of her junior year in Jordan, remembered how she played with her mother’s heels and makeup. For this five-year-old, wearing a veil “is an initiation ritual, it represents becoming a woman,” says Woldesemait.
For her ICS honors thesis, Woldesemait uses interviews conducted in Turkey and Jordan to examine the rhetoric of the modern hijab. “The ‘Fashionization’ of the Hijab in Jordan” highlights how the meanings and styles of the hijab are part of the discourse of women in Islam.
“I don’t want it to be ‘my voice’ for hijab women, I want it to be their voice. My main objective is for their voice to be heard,” Woldesemait says.
In Turkey, Woldesemait found a whole fashion district dedicated to the hijab. Women shopped in expensive, brand-named stores. This challenged her assumption that only very religious women wear the hijab.
“What stands out to me the most is how regular teens who are wearing the hijab love wearing the hijab and want to keep their tradition—that is what a ‘good woman’ wants to do. But they’re normal teenagers who want to be fashionable.”
Many older Jordanian women wear veils by choice. Others wear them because of family pressure.
“We judge girls by their personality and not what they wear. But if she is wearing a hijab she is also pious, she’s a ‘good’ girl. The beauty of the woman belongs to her family,” one man told Woldesemait.
While it may seem contradictory, Woldesemait found that the hijab gives many women agency over their own bodies. “She decides who gets to see her body and beauty, even though her body still doesn’t belong to her but belongs to her family. There is a preconceived notion that women who wear it are very traditional and that modernization was tied to unveiling. But that’s not true, because women who are wearing veils are in the modern workforce.”
After graduation, Woldesemait plans to apply for Peace Corps in the Middle East and Africa, then attend law school. Wherever she goes, though, Woldesemait will be ready to explore beyond preconceptions—and fashion.