A woman's crown. A tool of oppression. A symbol of modesty. A sign of fanaticism.
The hijab has been called a lot of things. Up until now, none of those has been "fashion item."
But that might soon change. Designers have been adapting to the more modest needs of the young and growing Muslim fashion market, with H&M hiring a hijabi model, Dolce & Gabbana releasing a collection of hijabs and abayas and a host of labels including DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger producing special Ramadan clothing collections.
These business-savvy fusions of fashion and faith are intended to appeal to practicing Muslims, but they have caught the attention of those outside the religion. Google searches for "hijab" in the United States hit an all-time high in December 2015. Lately, from the woman in a stars-and-stripes headscarf redefining what it means to be a patriot on Fox News to Instagram's "hijab Barbie," the scarf is never out of the news.
"Many more people are becoming accepting of hijab, and it's also showing up a lot more in the media," Ikhlas Hussain, who runs The Muslim Girl blog, told Mic. "Many young girls and women have taken to the internet to share their passion for hijab and fashion, and these blogs and sites are being seen by the West, especially by fashion moguls."
That has led to a most peculiar turn of events: a growing interest from non-Muslims in actually wearing head coverings themselves.
"Now women from all backgrounds and religions wear my clothes and turbans. Some collect my turbans," she said. "It's interesting to see ... how it went from being seen as an object of oppression to a desired fashion item."
Fatima Rafiy, designer and director of Belgium-based hijab brand Noor D*Izar, which advertises itself to both Muslims and non-Muslims, was also surprised.
"To be honest, I never expected to see so many non-Muslims interested in my product," Rafiy told Mic. "Although the hijab is often seen as something only to be worn by Muslims, I think we can all agree it doesn't have to be."
Not all agree, of course, considering the hijab remains a symbol closely associated with Islam. The fashion industry is constantly accused of what fashion writer Ted Polhemus calls "guerrilla raids" on unsuspecting cultural groups, turning the traditional symbols of everyone from Native American tribes to cholas into fashion statements, and diluting or corrupting the symbols' original meanings along the way.
Naturally, some women are hesitant to give them a spin, unclear on what constitutes a fashion statement. All over the internet, from Reddit to Quora, non-Muslim women are asking if they can wear a headscarf purely for fashion reasons, inspired by women they see on the street and stylish hijabi bloggers like Dina Torkia.
"I've always found them beautiful and exuding such class, and have been thinking of wearing one ... Would it be rude to wear it inconsistently?" one would-be hijabi wrote to Haute Hijab.
On secret-sharing platform Whisper, non-Muslim users have shared their desire to wear the hijab: "I'm not a Muslim. But sometimes I think it would be nice to wear a hijab or even a burqa." And when Dolce & Gabbana's sleek hijabs went viral, some non-Muslims expressed a desire to wear such gorgeous clothes.
But clearly fashion is already taking inspiration, if not with literal hijabs than with things that look pretty similar. Dolce & Gabbana has used hijab-wearing models on social media; meanwhile, a quick glance at the Spring 2016 runways shows hijab-like garments across different labels, from a bejeweled head covering at Givenchy to loose headscarves inspired by Morocco at Christian Siriano and bright silk scarves at — where else? — Dolce & Gabbana.
"The more common sight of the hijab on the catwalk, Instagram etc. indicates that the hijab is starting to be considered as an accessory more than a religious symbol," Sydney-based hijabi fashion blogger Wiwid Howat told Mic.
Why women are being drawn to them: There are those who might be interested in hijabs as a pure fashion statement. Other women, including a Christian librarian, have embraced hijabs to show solidarity with Muslims. And others still are wearing versions of headscarves because they want to be modest, which itself reflects fashion's recent shift towards covered-up chic.
The modest fashion market currently caters primarily to the religious, but as modest bloggers have shown, long hemlines and high necklines are just plain stylish.
"People love to feel modest and beautiful," Zainah Meqdadi, who runs a modest clothing business with her mother, told Mic, "Seeing other girls wearing hijab on Instagram and other social media in a stylish manner encourages the younger girls of the generation to start wearing the hijab, because sadly in this generation most people's role models are Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner."
Howat agreed, telling Mic, "Modest wear is definitely popular in mainstream fashion right now. I think this reflects a growing influence of Muslim designers and the value of the Muslim market." It's also just cyclical, she added. "You don't have to go back too far in history to find periods when everyone was dressing modestly."
Between long, loose coats and ankle-length skirts, mainstream fashion — whether purposefully or not — has become so modest that Guardian writer Sara Ilyas quipped, "I wouldn't be surprised to see all the Kardashians in niqab by 2017."
In fact, we've already seen Khloe Kardashian pose in a niqab on Instagram, where she was lambasted for cultural appropriation. There is still a fine line to walk; Rihanna has also come under fire for her sultry snaps while wearing a hijab. That pushback highlights an important fact we often forget: For some women, clothing items are just one part of modesty.
"Hijab goes hand in hand with modesty, and that doesn't only revolve around a simple piece of fabric on your head, but in the way you dress yourself, and the way you behave," said The Muslim Girl's Hussain.
At the same time, non-Muslims walking in hijabis' shoes — or scarves — might help foster understanding. World Hijab Day, held on Feb. 1, is designed to give non-Muslims a better understanding of the veiling practice. A host of videos online show women enjoying the experience and the glamorous "Audrey Hepburn-style" looks that hijabis styled for them.
"Honestly, it's a beautiful thing to see anyone embrace headscarves for the aspects of modesty and Islam," said Meqdadi, the modest clothing business owner, told Mic. "I just don't see it as a fashion statement much, but then again if it is going to make people more understanding and polite about it, I think there's no harm."