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European Muslims Reconcile Cultures through Fashion

European critics deride the Islamic veil as a mark of female oppression. But for a new generation of young Muslim women, it is part of an emerging fashion that seeks to integrate European and Muslim identities.

On a cold evening, the Starbucks coffee shop in the Paris-area business district of La Defense, offers a welcome refuge. Twenty-nine-year-old Saadia Boussana is cradling a warm drink. Tall and striking, with a black and gold embroidered shirt and a glittering brown bonnet, she blends in easily with the trendy, after-work crowd.

In fact, it's hard to associate her stylish bonnet with a headscarf or hijab, the head coverings worn by devout Muslim women that are highly controversial in Europe. In France, the center-right government has banned girls from wearing headscarves in public schools. It is now considering legislation to ban women from wearing an extreme version of the veil, the face covering niqab, in public places.

But for young women like Boussana, communications director for a new Muslim women's magazine called MWM, or My Woman Magazine, the head covering is part of her fashion look.

Increasingly, Boussana says, observant Muslim women want to dress stylishly while remaining modest. Many like her head to mainstream department stories like Zara and H&M to create their outfits - partly for lack of fashionable Muslim shops.

Boussana is part of a new generation of educated, vocal and socially active women who are beginning to brand their European and Muslim identities through style. They layer dresses over pants, wrap headscarves into bandanas, match hooded kaftans with high-heeled boots.

They are turning their backs on fashions worn by their mothers - often first-generation immigrants from Pakistan, Turkey or North Africa. And they are showing that Islamic dress codes - which generally stipulate covering most of the body except for the face, hands and feet - do not have to be boring.

Emma Tarlo is a British social anthropologist and author of a new book, "Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith". She points to the hijab, or headscarf, as the most obvious manifestation of this fashion revolution.

"In a sense they're using fashion to try to contradict the idea of the hijab being just about politics, traditionalism or piety even. They are still associating it with modesty and the idea that a woman keeps part of her body private. But they're active in the public sphere and they're modern - and they want to be seen as modern."

Much of the fashion action is taking place in Britain, where cultural diversity is more tolerated than elsewhere in Europe. Up-and-coming designers like Sarah Elenany and Sophia Kara are even attracting a non-Muslim clientele with their edgy styles, bold colors and loose, full clothes.

But Tarlo has seen Muslim street fashion bubbling up in Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany - all countries where being "visibly Muslim" is not always appreciated.

"I think that's partly why people work all the harder to develop interesting hijab styles, to decorate the hijab...so that it actually becomes a sort of visual talking point, it attracts attention. And many young women welcome - if people ask about their dress - they welcome the opportunity to explain it."

France, with its estimated five to six million Muslims and an international reputation for fashion, appears to be a promising market. But Islamic wear collides with its staunchly secular creed.

In 2004, the center-right government banned pupils from wearing headscarves and other so-called "ostentatious" religious accessories in public schools. In the coming months, the government is expected to push legislation to ban or severely restrict the face-veil, or niqab, in public places.

Chahira Ait Belkacem is executive director of the Muslim women's magazine MWM.

Belkacem says unlike their counterparts in the United States or Britain, conservative Muslim women in France are afraid of making bold fashion statements. Being chic, she says, is still badly viewed within the Muslim community.

But that appears to be changing. In a sign of their growing social presence, Muslim women now have two new French "webzines," or Internet magazines, that directly target them. One is MWM. The other is titled Hijab and the City.

Twenty-two-year-old Mariame Tighanime co-founded Hijab and the City two years ago with her older sister Khadija.

Tighanime says the magazine wants to reach all Muslim women, not just those who are well-off and successful. Like MWM, it strives for a broad audience that includes Muslims and non-Muslims. Besides fashion, both Internet magazines have with sections that include beauty, health, family, environment, culture - and features on women who have made a difference in society.

Muslim veils - and Muslims in general - have also sparked strong emotions in the Netherlands, where the Dutch government considered but later discarded legislation to ban face veils.

Still "Muslima wear" is gaining a foothold among young, trendy Muslim women. Even a few, non-Muslim designers like Cindy van den Bremen are getting into the act. Van den Bremen markets a line of sporty hijabs mostly through her Internet store, Capsters.com.

She says many Muslim retail stores are not meeting the needs of the new generation.

"On the other hand, there's an increasing number of modern and fashionable shops on line which combine different styles. And there is an increasing number of Muslim women interested. But it's different from the shops their mothers would go to."

Women who assert their Muslim identities through fashion are not always well received. Author Tarlo says that when controversial issues involving Islam crop up in Europe, so do old stereotypes of Islam versus the West. And, she says, many European Muslim women feel incredibly frustrated by this.

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