Why Muslim women are finding the balaclava trend problematic

“Balaclavas don’t get banned, but hijabs do”: why some Muslim women are finding the balaclava trend problematic

Hafsa Lodi, journalist and author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, discusses how the balaclava trend highlights the double-standards of the fashion industry.

Hair-topping headwear has become increasingly en vogue. From Y2K bandanas crafted from cotton ginghams to berets and bucket hats à la Emily In Paris, accessories that coincidentally cover one’s hair are gaining popularity among style-conscious women. Yet hijabs, despite having gained more representation in fashion, are for the most part excluded from this narrative of normalised, mainstream headwear.

So when balaclavas, which essentially cover the same area as a hijab, recently began trending on TikTok, many Muslim women were quick to point out the similarities between the two accessories, and the opposing connotations they held. One is being deemed fashionable, while the other is often a symbol of oppression or extremism in the mainstream Western media, and has provoked widespread bans in many European countries. “A balaclava is trendy but a hijab is a threat, sad society,” tweeted one user. 

As a Muslim woman myself, I don’t cover my hair, but have a great deal of respect for those who choose to (and a disdain for those patriarchal families that enforce it). Regardless of why Muslim women may choose to cover their hair – be it for religious beliefs, cultural customs or political statements, hijab, like overall modesty, is a personal decision and journey. 

But the spotlight on turbans, headscarves, bonnets and balaclavas in fashion has raised concern over how we endorse and celebrate body autonomy. Some segments of society are free to dip in and out of style trends that cover their hair, but those who chose to commit to hair-covering for religious or cultural reasons, remain ostracised.

Double standards

Modest fashion has been booming over the past half-decade, with retailers the world over catering to Muslim spending power – the retail niche is expected to be valued at $402 billion (£295 billion) by 2024. On one hand, designers like Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Tommy Hilfiger are sending some models down the runways with headscarves, or better yet, recruiting hijabi models like Halima Aden and Ikram Abdi Omar for their campaigns and shows. Yet, an unshakeable sense of hypocrisy remains ever-present, looming over the heads of women who have dressed this way for years due to faith-based reasons. 

Diverse, scarfed faces on billboards and magazine covers are great, but what is the point of inclusion if it’s reserved solely for the realm of star-studded, high-fashion glamour? Why is it “mysterious” and “artistic” when Kim Kardashian dons an all-black, face-covering get-up to the Met Gala, but barbaric when a Muslim woman makes the decision to cover her body in a burqa?

Why Muslim women are finding the balaclava trend problematic
Hafsa Lodi's book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox dissected the complexities of dressing modestly in a world where "sex sells".

Similar contradictions surfaced with the Covid-19 pandemic, when face-masking became obligatory in some countries to help curb the spread of the virus. Ironically, European nations like France upheld their strict niqab bans, even though they cover the same facial area as medical face masks do. Burkinis, burqas and niqabs remain outlawed in areas of Europe and Canada – cities where balaclavas might be perceived as perfectly acceptable winter-wear. Muslim women have responded with social media campaigns like #handsoffmyhijab, which gained momentum when France proposed its Separatism Bill banning the hijab in public places on minors under 18. 

While such hypocritical bans make Islamophobic politics and prejudices quite evident, fashion fads are far less sinister. The similarities between balaclavas and hijabs are merely coincidental, and Muslim women cannot claim ownership over every head-covering garment. One user on Twitter commented, “Is a ‘balaclava’ not just a whitewashed hijab?” It actually isn’t. Knitted balaclavas were historically worn by Prussian, Polish and even British soldiers to keep warm during battle, and many athletes also wear them for warmth while snowboarding and skiing.

Why Muslim women are finding the balaclava trend problematic
Hijab-wearing model Halima Aden quit the industry in November 2020, citing compromised beliefs and feeling like a “minority within a minority”.

Balaclavas can be stylish and cosy, offering practicality and functionality (and newfound TikTok style cred), and are by no means copycats of Muslim headscarves. Not to mention, headscarves are not exclusive to Muslim women – they were common among early women of all three Abrahamic faiths. But Christian women aren’t spearheading the social media debates about balaclavas because veiled nuns, for the most part, are treated with respect and sanctity in the Western media, whereas everyday veiled Muslim women are regarded as suspicious and threatening.

Difficult questions 

After my book, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox was released in 2020, I was asked numerous times whether I thought that modesty in fashion was reflective of a fleeting trend rather than any true appreciation for cultural dress codes, whether the usage of hijabi models was tokenistic and not indicative of true inclusion, and whether mainstream retailers entering the modest fashion space were culturally-appropriating Middle Eastern styles and threatened smaller, faith-based labels who had been serving this demographic for far longer. These remain difficult to answer, and the question of trending balaclavas, trivial as it may seem, is also situated here in this murky area of the modest fashion space.

Like many Muslim women, I’m thrilled that “modest” and “fashion” are finally words being used together – that layering a slip dress over a blouse can be considered stylish and not frumpy, and that hijabi women are appearing on magazine covers across the globe. It’s certainly an improvement from two decades ago, when you’d be hard-pressed to find a visibly-Muslim woman fronting a mainstream fashion campaign.

Hijabi women in particular, are proudly proving their appetite for faith and fashion, appropriating micro-trends in unexpected ways: bucket hats, for instance, are being worn on top of or in place of hijabs, and pearl-emblazoned barrette hairclips, meant to be showcased on hair, are being used to decorate the sides of headscarves. Balaclavas too might become a convenient cross-over style for veiled women who look for alternative – not to mention warmer – ways to cover their heads.

As we continue to see a far-reaching merging of faith and fashion, it would be nice to see this spirit of acceptance, diversity and collaboration reflected on a wider scale too. The same enthusiasm for fashion fads that cover the hair could be extended into activism against hijab bans, and campaigning to give Muslim women the same rights to clothing and expression that other women are afforded.

Social media, which helped catapult modest fashion to the mainstream in the first place, seems like the best place for awareness and activism to take root. For while fashion may be fickle, faith is not, and it’s only fair for both style incentives to flourish without prejudice.

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Images: courtesy of Getty and writer.