For British Somalis in particular, the weeks leading up to a big wedding have rivaled the Met Gala anticipation. Once you’ve secured your cream embossed event invite, the planning and video chats with girlfriends begin and it’s game on.
You would think it was everybody in Leicester’s wedding day, as ordinary guests parse the details of the night. Who’s going to do our henna, and does she do nails too? Does that girl you went to school with still do makeup? And let’s not forget the most important question: what are you wearing? This last question is one that’s been at the forefront of our minds for weeks, but in quintessentially Somali fashion, it’s only answered in the last 48 hours before the big night itself. Young or old, that question is almost as sacred to us as the wedding itself. We approach it with a mantra that our people have carried with them for generations: you have to show up and show up. you should.
And when Leicesterians want to show up and stand out – more specifically, when Leicesterians want to bow and be on a budget – we don’t go to River Island or Zara. We’re going to St. Matthews, the cornerstone of culture in our city. It is a relatively small neighborhood near the city center and provides a home and refuge for much of Leicester’s black and Asian community, who are part of an estimated 47 percent of the population of the area. With its diverse make-up, St. Matthews is at odds with much of the city, the streets filled with more mosques and barber shops than one can count. It is where most Muslim parents drive their kids to Madrasah in the evening or wherever you go to get the freshest halwa for Eid day. Although it is an exceptionally working-class area of Leicester, it has an undeniable cultural currency. It’s also where you’ll find the most dripping traditional ‘fits’ if you have to attend a big wedding, like I did last September.
The cultural climate I grew up in was one where the Muslim experience was at best ignored and shunned by the mainstream. At worst, it was armed in a bogeyman story. Born a month before 9/11, I am a baby of the ‘war on terror’ era and have never known a world where I have not struggled with people’s assumptions. It seems that instead of fading away, the harmful stereotypes imprinted on my people are now more visible than ever. It feels like political Islamophobia de easiest ticket to positions of powerwhere politicians only have to give in to fear of gathering votes.
The effects of mainstream Islamophobia have often manifested themselves in unjust legislation, such as the ban on burqas in places like France, Belgium and China. But more often than not, it is an invisible weight on the daily lives of Muslims. It’s a burden that dampens your joy, and I shrank within myself and lived without the strength I deserved until it was finally enough.
So last September, in the same year that Muslims have been victims of religious hate crimes 2703 times in the UK I made every effort to celebrate my difference at my first cousin Farhiya’s wedding: my hijab.
I went to the Somalian convenience stores in St Matthews after work with my mother as I have since childhood, focusing on snacks and fizzy drinks. It was a tradition we have kept even now in our twenties, meeting after work before walking home together. As was to be expected, the place was packed. Some of the women sat on the floor or on boxes of freshly shipped clothes. One of the owners walked around with shushumow and offered the kids cookies in tow. A point is made about hospitality in Somali shops, especially on days like these. The vibrancy of the garments and loud prints along the walls may overwhelm outsiders who don’t understand our trends, but for me they bring the same comfort as my home. There are even pieces in this shop that I recognize from my own closet, such as an abaya with pearl-lined sleeves.
In my periphery, something caught my eye: a display of hijabs bundled in rolls, ordered by material, color and design.
At the top was the hijab that, unbeknownst to me, would revive my lost love of fashion.
Growing up, I was obsessed with my mom’s closet. The wild prints and breathtaking textures had prompted me to experiment. But as I got older, I began to fall into the trap of dressing as far from my heritage as possible in hopes of assimilating better. Out came the zebra print dress and went into a black pencil skirt which I wore because Sarah had one in my tutoring class. The multicolored hijab my mom gave me for my 14th birthday was swapped out for the generic sleek bun the girls on the high school basketball team wore to a party earlier this week.
I started to spend more of my summers back home in Somalia with the rest of my family, and I noticed how well dressed everyone was. That combined with my political awakening meant that I started to reconnect with my roots through clothing.
The extroversion that I had hidden while battling assumptions of others and myself about what a hijab should look like started to unravel when I turned 18. I had unlocked a newer version of myself – and I found myself drawn to different clothes, with personality and flair. I had things to say and a voice to handle, and what I had to say needed different clothes that in turn had to make a statement. And just then, a purple sparkly hijab from that bundle called out to me. It seems crazy to say, but it felt destined. It was flamboyant and loud, and I felt dizzy. The $4 price tag was a small cost to pay for the rarity of participating in all that is vain and beautiful.
A gloom is expected in your dress as a hijab wearer. But the Somali store has helped combat all that restrictive nonsense. For those who fled their homes so long ago, they have become something of a sacred ground for fashion, cultivating a flashier, more extroverted (and African) take on modest clothing.
Trends captured by fabric owners in countries like Dubai and Turkey can help change the way an entire community dresses. These small business owners do everything themselves, from buying the fabric in bulk to negotiating with tailors to help them realize their vision for the fit. The lack of an intermediary keeps prices low for the most part. There is no one to interfere in the trade of these production workers; they are their own bosses and thus negotiate their prices with each store owner on their own terms. That, coupled with the fact that there’s no fun merchandising or packaging to pay for, also helps make the Somali store a cheaper option than your usual high-street stores.
When the civil war of the 1980s broke out in Somalia, many of its people fled abroad, forming the far-reaching diaspora we see today. Many abandoned their hopes and aspirations and had to find ways to earn money, so they did what many immigrant populations have done before: they rushed. When it became clear that the war was not going to end anytime soon, they decided to establish a level of permanence for their children, while also connecting their community with the culture they were forced to leave behind. We needed our wooden Afro combs, organic sesame oil, tuna straight from our shore and even sparkly scarves.
Whatever we needed, we took care of ourselves. Few things are more powerful than expanding when the status quo would shrink you, few things more beautiful than seeing someone live their life on their own terms, no matter how difficult that is for the systems in place to oppress us. For me, that hijab was necessary to unlearn the untruths I had internalized about how a Muslim black woman should work.
I paid $4 to understand myself better, to legitimize my version of femininity. I stood in that store and wrapped that scarf around me to “oohs” and “aahs”. My mother and I were the hijabis of the wedding, dressed in the same size dress but she in jade. Besides the scarf itself, the most amazing thing about that purchase was the immeasurable confidence it instilled in me. That evening I saw myself as beautiful and dynamic. seen. My thanks go to the many thousands of Somali small business owners. I paid someone $4 to help me understand myself better. I would do it again.
Ayan Artan is a culture and politics writer whose work focuses on critically addressing intersectional viewpoints, examining topics such as race, female identity, and the migrant experience through an original lens.