By Shelley Hill Young
When Hassanah El-Yacoubi went to college, women often stopped her and said, “I love the way you wear the hijab, but I could never pull it off the way you do.”
So Hassanah began a blog called Perfect For Her where she posted photos of celebrities and other women wearing stylish yet modest fashions as a way to show women that you can be covered up as the Islam religion requires but still look on trend. She hosted a trunk show in Northern Virginia, where she grew up, selling a curated collection of modest formal dresses. She says there was a line out the door and each woman purchased two, three or four dresses.
Hassanah knew she was on to something. She went back to Southern California, where she is a doctoral student in religious studies, and hosted a Perfect For Her convention to bring together designers of stylish modest clothing. Her sixth convention is coming up in August. It’s now the largest modest fashion event in the United States, with more than 500 women attending.
She says the thing that made others take notice of her back in college was that her style was modest, but not frumpy.
“I was able to be modest but on trend,” she says. But, more importantly, “I projected confidence in my religious identity that, perhaps, they longed for. … I wasn’t afraid to look different. I liked that I looked different.”
Hassanah is one of three Muslim women speaking at the College of Charleston on April 19 for the Amazing Muslim Women event. It’s a panel discussion about faith, feminism and the future of America and will be moderated by visiting political science professor Shyam Sriram, who invited the women to speak.
“They only real way to gain knowledge about different cultures is experientially,” Shyam says. Shyam teaches classes on religion in American politics and international relations and immigration, and touches on American Muslims’ experiences in each class. But he realized that many of his students and others on campus rarely have had the opportunity to interact with Muslims.
“The point of this event is that I want people to experience American Islam,” he said. “These women are Muslim. They are American, and they are not going anywhere.”
Shyam also wanted to give voice to different perspectives on feminism because the discussion of women’s equality has often left out experiences of women who are not from a white, Western, Christian background.
Sanad Alshareef, another of the speakers, is a first-year resident in internal medicine at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She decided to become a doctor after watching doctors and nurses help a family member who was sick in her country of Iraq, where there often is not adequate access to health care.
“I remember that day vividly because it was filled with tears of both fear and joy,” Sanad says. “This inspired me to provide support and hope to whoever was going through similar situations.”
But, she says, colleagues, acquaintances and sometimes strangers told her she shouldn’t pursue a career in medicine because “it is not for women.”
“I was told that I should not be too ambitious about pursuing a higher education or career because these things would intimidate men,” she says. “Essentially, (I was told) that women should look and behave a certain way.”
Sanad, who plans to one day have a medical practice of her own, says all women – especially Muslim women – need to support and empower one another to reach their full potential.
“People must stop promoting and accepting traditional gender roles,” she says. “I am a proud Muslim Arab-American immigrant who followed her American dream and became a physician.”
Hassanah uses her Perfect For Her blog and convention platforms to communicate a larger message of female empowerment.
The business owners she invites to the convention are often female Muslim entrepreneurs. She often promotes other brands with fashionable modest styles on her Instagram account, where she has 47,000 followers. Her brand is dedicated to empowering other women to wear the hijab confidently and to supporting female entrepreneurs.
“When you show others that you are not afraid of their success, then you are the most successful. We have to get over this fear of someone being more successful than us,” she says. “We are absolutely more powerful together.”
If you go:
Amazing Muslim Women
6-7:30 p.m. April 19
Rita Hollings Science Center, Room 101