The Genteel
March 5, 2021


London Veil portraits. Souce:

The hijab has long been an instantly recognisable, physical representation of the Islamic faith. But for many of today's hijab wearers, the garment is more than just an expression of their beliefs. British photographer Sara Shamsavari's exhibit, London Veil, which showcased at the Women Of The World Festival, features a series of women wearing vibrant, colourful and individually styled hijabs. The exhibit highlights the fashionable reality of modern day hijabs in London as an expression of style, individuality and identity.

Many Muslim women in London are wearing the hijab out of choice, in a place where they can adapt it as they wish to reflect who they are...

The term "hijab" is an ancient Arabic word meaning "barrier" or "partition." However, within Islam's teachings, its meaning broadens to denote modesty, regarding the behaviour of both men and women, as well as dress. Straying from its original intent, in recent times the headscarf has been seen as divisive within multicultural societies and associated with extremist religion. For some, the image of women wearing the hijab or other Islamic attire - such as the burka - has come to symbolise female oppression, particularly in countries imposing Sharia law.

Recent reports of Iran's "morality policing" practices have spurred this impression. Last year, Tehran's police chief called for the need of the volunteer morality police to communicate the government's message on un-Islamic dressing, describing Westernised dress as a "virus" that they must stop through the elimination of "badly worn headscarves." 

On Mother's Day in Iran earlier this month, that message was communicated in full force. Morality police, or Basij, in Iran's capital of Tehran lined the streets rewarding women appropriately dressed in hijabs or chadors - a long headscarf revealing only the face - with gifts of flowers. Meanwhile others, deemed as adorning badly worn headdress or wearing too much make-up, were driven to a police facility to be lectured on appropriate dressing, reported The Economist.

With the country's presidential elections this June, the laws concerning morality appear to have been tightened. However, the fashion lecturing is failing to be taken seriously by some of the female offenders. One woman from Tehran told The Guardian, "It's just a game. There were 50 girls rolling their eyes at the police and texting on their phones." A far cry from the downtrodden image of Middle Eastern women the media is known to perpetuate. However, in contrast, a report from Time magazine in 2008 recalled a younger girl, "crying hysterically, begging to be released." Although the reporter noted the reaction was likely induced by the prospect of the girl's parents finding out, rather than in fear of the morality police, the report offers a different view of how Iran's policing method is affecting female clothing choices.

Iranian Morality Police. Source:

The intent to control female fashion through reward and punishment hasn't necessarily influenced the minds of hijabis in other parts of the world. For Sara Shamsavari, London's vast multiculturalism offered insight to the changing image of hijab wearers and the scope for personalisation the garment now has. Photographing everyday women on the streets of London earlier this year (many of whom Shamsavari recalls were shocked to have been asked), allowed for a collection of eye-opening images of the hijab-wearer in Britain's capital today.

The project, like many of Shamsavari's other collections, sought to, "explore and interpret identity," within the hijab-wearing community in London. While not Muslim herself, Shamsavari is of Iranian heritage, making her a photographer who understands the meaning and tradition behind the religious garment. She told The Genteel that while the project neither criticises nor advocates the wearing of the hijab, it was influenced by, "our perceived restrictions, limitations and challenges and how these forces encourage originality, adaptation and in turn transform cultural expression into objects of beauty." The result is a stunningly vibrant collection of photographs, full of colour and each style of hijab differing to the next.

One viewer of the exhibition stated, "For me, I found it quite educational. I never really saw how expressive and how some of the young ladies incorporated their fashion into their tradition." Shamsavari notes that rather than the common response of walking past a hijab and seeing just a veil, "many people commented on the fact that the women in these portraits looked so vibrant and happy in contrast to the majority of images of veiled women we are exposed to here in the West."

A portrait from London Veil.

However, Shamsavari understands the significance of photographing the hijab in London compared to the Middle East: "Many Muslim women in London are wearing the hijab out of choice, in a place where they can adapt it as they wish to reflect who they are and the styles are vibrant and unique. In Iran, where women are literally forced to wear the veil, there is little room for this kind of expression. This is a shame since few nations can rival Iran's historically rich, cultural expression."

To the photographer, the development of incorporating personal style to the traditionally simplistic garment brings a new richness to the culture, fitting for an eternally developing modern day world. She told The Genteel, "diversity, whether in ways of seeing, thinking, or being (including dress), can encourage a society to grow, evolve and become rich in ways beyond material wealth."

The fashion world has the ability to infiltrate almost every aspect of our lives. For many Muslim hijab wearers, religion is one of those aspects. Although Iran may be yet to loosen restrictions on hijab fashion, many London hijabis are changing with the times. The hijab is no longer about control in the capital; rather about proclaiming faith, personality and style.

London Veil showed at Women Of the World festival at London's Southbank Centre in March 2013 and plans to tour the UK as well as being made into a book in the near future.



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