'Hip' hijab takes on Dutch prejudices

A ban on head scarfs in school gym classes spawns the 'capster' and a small business.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In 1999, while seeking a graduate project idea at the Design Academy of Eindhoven, Cindy van den Bremen found a problem-solving opportunity.

The Dutch Commission of Equal Treatment had recently ruled that high schools could prohibit Muslim girls from wearing head coverings in gym class. Girls were advised to wear turtlenecks teamed with swim caps. But some were ignoring the sartorial advice, preferring instead to skip gym all together.

At about that time, the Dutch were beginning to become disillusioned with multiculturalism - a trend that was to intensify in the next few years with the death of maverick anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn and the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a radical Dutch Islamist.

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For Ms. van den Bremen, the phys-ed class controversy offered a means to marry her political sense of injustice with her professional expertise. "I realized that if the hijabs did not look traditional, but hip and trendy, they could possibly change prejudice into some sort of admiration," says the young Dutch designer.

Within months, the "capster" was born, and quickly blossomed into a business. In four styles designed for tennis, skating, aerobics, and outdoor sports, van den Bremen's head coverings were sleek, safe, and - in the words of a local Islamic cleric - "Islamically correct."

Even an elderly man at her graduation show who told her he didn't like the hijab at all, said he did like her designs. "This made me realize even more that the social problem with the acceptance of the hijab was not about the girls being covered, but the way they are covered," says van den Bremen.

Initially, she expected that she'd be done with the capsters after graduation. But the capsters' popularity has grown steadily, and grateful feedback she receives and the clamor for more such products has encouraged her to expand her small business operation.

For Farah Azwai, an athletic undergraduate at the American Intercontinental University in London, who started wearing the hijab at age 16, the capster was a relief.

"Before I had the capsters, I tried a number of things - I used to wear a bandanna and tried fixing my hijab in different ways but it wasn't very practical and I always had problems," says Ms. Azwai, who bought the "skate" and "outdoors" models online. "The fabric and style is very modern, it totally suits my style - it goes well with my sports clothes, with brands like Nike, Adidas and Pineapple."

Van den Bremen's business expansion plans include increasing production of the four current lines to keep up with demand as well as new lines of "breathable" capsters for tropical climates.

She also has designs on promoting intercultural dialogue. She recently teamed with Dutch Iranian photographer Giti Entezami to produce Sharing Motives, a book featuring 25 Dutch women in a variety of hijabs. The duo has since expanded their project to an exhibition - currently on display at the University of Utrecht - accompanied by a series of lectures and debates.

More than a year after Van Gogh's killing sparked a violent anti-Muslim backlash, experts say a pressing need for intercultural dialogue remains in the Netherlands. A recent Pew Global Attitudes study found the Netherlands to be the only Western country where a majority of the population - 51 percent - views Muslims unfavorably.

Amid a recent slew of immigration tightening measures, beefed-up citizenship tests and controversial antiterrorism programs inviting citizens to report "suspect people," Muslim community leaders say a proposed ban on the burqa - an all-enveloping Islamic covering for women - is yet another shot in the Netherlands' rising Islamophobia.

"There are two sets of standards in this country," says Famille Arslan, a prominent Dutch Muslim lawyer. "One is for Muslims and another for non-Muslims. This law not only discriminates against religion and gender, it also threatens to further polarize the people."

In December, the Dutch parliament approved a ban on the burqa and other Islamic veils that cover the face in all public places. The measure - which was introduced by conservative politician Geert Wilders - is currently awaiting approval from a commission examining the legality of such a ban under European human rights laws.

If passed, it would be one of the most restrictive responses to Islamic clothing in Europe. Defenders of the ban note that the measure does not apply to the head scarf (or capster), merely to Islamic garments that cover the face such as the burqa and the niqab, a facial veil with an opening for the eyes. Experts estimate that only about 50 to 100 women among Holland's 1 million Muslims currently don such extensive veiling.

Despite widespread criticism, Mr. Wilders is determined to push his initiative through the legal process. "I hope to succeed with my motion because I believe I have broad popular support," he says in a phone interview. "Parliament has followed public opinion, but the government can act differently for political reasons."

Van den Bremen bemoans the lack of intercultural dialogue. "It seems like no one is discussing things with the girls. They always talk about the girls," she says. "I was struck by how emancipated they were. They were demanding to be judged by their capacity, not their looks."

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