Story and photo by Melanie Dostis
AMMAN, Jordan – Fourteen-year-old Farah Hisham dedicated half an hour of preparation to her outfit before heading out to meet her friends at the mall. She wanted to be the best dressed among them. And after pulling on tight jeans, platform heels and a white spaghetti-strap tank, she was ready to go.
Except that her mother, dressed casually in clothes that covered her from neck to wrist and ankle, made her grab a black cardigan sweater before she got to the door.
In a couple of years, Hisham will give all of this up as she transforms into the observant Muslim woman she wishes to become. To do that, she’ll shield her hair and neck with a hijab, and drape her body with a traditional long dress that will only show her hands from the wrists to the fingertips.
“I will not wear the hijab until I am ready to wear the things you should wear with the hijab. I will respect my religion,” said Hisham, a friendly girl with beautiful thick long hair and a petite frame.
In Jordan, a region that prides itself on being more open-minded and independent than many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, many Muslim women are redefining the image that comes with wearing hijab-compliant clothing. The hijab refers to the sacred veil worn once a girl is considered a woman, usually when she’s 12 to 14 years old. Women who choose to veil and cover their bodies are known as “muhajabas.”
However, as more young girls are exposed to the influences of Western culture through television and the Internet, more are choosing to stray from the traditionally modest tenants of living a devout life.
Abeer Dababneh, head of the Women’s Studies Centre at the University of Jordan, points to the media – and specifically the increasing influence of foreign television programs – as the primary driver behind what’s happening here. She sees a direct correlation between the increasing popularity of Western TV, and the increasing demand for clothes that do not adhere to Islamic traditions.
In fact, Dababneh said nearly 90 percent of women who wear hijabs no longer wear traditional dresses but instead choose to cover up with regular store-bought clothes.
“In the market, the media has a big impact. Women watch [popular shows] and want to dress and do like they do,” said Dababneh. “It is a personal choice. The young generation especially just wants to be young and popular.”
Stores have not been slow to accommodate this trend. In shopping-dominated districts Khalda, Swafeih and Wadi Saqra in Amman, customers pass by stores advertising “Less is More.” Skinny jeans, barely-there shorts, jewel-encrusted tank tops and bikinis can be found in stores such as Victoria Secret, H&M and Gap. Modern Jordanian stores, many named in English, offer the same trends.
Few shops offering customary long dresses can be found in the malls of Amman. While more are offered in downtown, a slew of shops there also showcase ripped leggings, vibrant-colored jeans and tank tops with sayings such as “Baby” or “SWEET.”
At List, a clothing store in the Taj Mall located in the posh neighborhood of Abdoun in Amman, both long and short dresses share floor space. Bara’a Nasar Alsabbagh, a sales associate there, sees two sides of the shopper spectrum. “We have long dresses. Many women prefer long, but the young people don’t like how long looks,” she said as she pointed out the different styles. “It’s mainly the young people who are covered differently. They are fashionable.”
Esra Faouri, a 21-year-old student at the University of Jordan, explained she doesn’t like the modest Muslim style and has adapted it to suit her desire to be both devout and a modern Muslim woman. Lounging on the steps of a pharmacy building at the university, covered in her hijab and also jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, she said: “It’s more practical to dress like this in the university. In the future, maybe my thinking will get bigger and I will dress as you must in my religion.”
Faouri is just a few years older than Hisham. And so both reflect an emerging culture that cannot keep out Western influences. Hisham’s bedroom provides a good snapshot of what that means. Her family’s house, located in what’s called the seventh circle of Amman, is a traditional Jordanian home with tile floors and white, sparely decorated walls. Her bedroom, on the other hand, is bright pink and plastered with hit American song lyrics such as “Baby you light up the world like no one else” by boy band One Direction. She’s also got pictures of friends everywhere, multiple hair product bottles strewn around and posters of American teen-age heartthrobs such as the Jonas Brothers and Justin Timberlake.
“All my friends like these things,” said Hisham. “All the girls do this, like it’s normal for us, so normal,” she said.
Dababneh explained that Jordanians, for the most part, accept this evolution. To them, it amounts to an individual’s freedom to make a choice. “We are very open about the relationship of the individual. We are one of the most developed countries in the Middle East in … the movement of [people] expressing themselves and we apply this to everyday life.”
But some, such as Faten Al-Nashash, a graduate student at the University of Jordan majoring in women’s studies, simply cannot understand what would possess her female contemporaries to make this choice. “The value of the hijab is changing,” said Al-Nashash, motioning to her own veil and floor-length black dress. “But with wearing the hijab you don’t want to reveal that which should not be revealed.”
Debabneh, first careful to stress that she wants women to have freedom of choice, ultimately seconded Al-Nashash.
“What they are reflecting [with their clothes] contradicts the values they want,” she said. “[But] whatever choice they make, let it be.”