When Sagal Jama, a student and content creator in Toronto, noticed that balaclavas were becoming a popular winter accessory, she was ecstatic. “As the seasons change and trends change too, I feel like I have to force my outfits on the terms of wearing a hijab and my level of modesty,” she said.
She often had to make adjustments as she tried to style trends that didn’t always work with her hijab, but the balaclava allowed her to participate comfortably, simply “buy the item and slip it off as it is.”
Ms. Jama, 21, bought five balaclavas and posted videos and photos of herself wearing them on her Instagram and TikTok accounts. But she realized that the trend also brought serious problems.
“You can take off a balaclava and leave the trend, but race, religion and gender are things that can’t just wake someone up and give up,” she said. “People can wear a balaclava and be seen as trendy or cool, but a hijab can be seen as a symbol of oppression or politics.”
This season, the balaclava, a hood that covers the head and neck, has become an important piece of clothing. Different brands and department stores have started selling them in different colors, silhouettes and materials, and they have flooded social feeds.
Some TikTok creators have devoted their profiles to crocheting elaborate and graceful versions of the accessory, and the hashtag “balaclava” has more than 121 million views on the app. Lirika Matoshi, a 25-year-old New York designer who has been making hand-knitted balaclavas for about a year, said she recently noticed her sales surge.
“They didn’t sell that much in the beginning,” Mrs. Matoshi said. However, a few months ago, they “started selling way too much,” she added. “People loved them.”
The balaclava resembles a hijab, a religious headscarf worn by Muslim women. Headscarves are usually worn to maintain modesty or serve as religious symbols, but can have different meanings depending on the wearer. Wearing a hijab is often a very personal experience.
Headscarves are also found in other religions and cultures. And while people who wear balaclavas today are considered fashionable, Muslim women who wear hijabs are often discriminated against or viewed as retarded.
Several regions of the western world have imposed restrictions on hijabs in recent years. In 2019, the Canadian province of Quebec passed a law banning teachers, police officers and other public sector employees from wearing religious symbols, including hijabs, while on the job. Last year, France voted to ban minors from wearing hijabs in public areas, a restriction already in place for public schools.
“White people are considered non-threatening in the US and Western Europe, which is why they are given a lot more freedom to wear what they want,” said Anna Piela, author of “Wearing the Niqab” and a visiting scholar in the department. religious studies from Northwestern University. “In the context of the balaclava craze, it’s not just whiteness — it’s white femininity that is read as non-threatening.” Ms Piela added that while the balaclava trend has been embraced by people of all racial backgrounds, “it’s the whiteness of some wearers that makes it mainstream, conventional.”
Maliha Fairooz, a college graduate in New York City, noticed that balaclavas were all over her TikTok feed. In December, after seeing a white woman post a video in a balaclava and get thousands of likes on the platform, Ms. Fairooz, 28, responded in a video of her own, expressing how people who wear the garment may be treated differently depending on how of their race.
In an interview, Ms. Fairooz said she found it ironic that people often see the hijab as retarded or as a way to control women, while “we’ve argued that we choose to wear this but with the balaclava, no someone says ‘you are oppressed to cover your hair’.’ She added: “The color of your skin determines how people will see you. Whether it’s cool and edgy, or whether it’s retarded.”
While wearing her hijab in public, Ms. Fairooz said she has experienced hate crimes on several occasions. She was kicked once at a train station and another time punched in the stomach while on her way to lunch. “I don’t know if people who wear balaclavas experience these things,” she said.
This phenomenon – that a piece of clothing or religious clothing is fashionable when non-marginalized groups wear it and, at the same time, an oppressed group of people is at risk of persecution – is not new. In 2018, Gucci showed a bright blue turban worn by white models during Milan fashion week. The turban had a retail price of nearly $800 and was advertised as “ready to turn heads while maintaining both comfort and trademark style.”
Elizabeth Bucar, a professor of religion at Northeastern University and author of “Pious Fashion,” said it was “marketed as a symbol of cosmopolitan chic, even as Sikhs wearing turbans are victims of violence.”
With today’s balaclava trend, and as modest fashion becomes more part of mainstream fashion, Ms Bucar added: “Muslim women who cover their heads still face discrimination and harassment. The popularity of a garment has not eradicated gender-based Islamophobia.”
But some Muslim veiled women see the trend as a possible path to a more conscious and empathetic understanding of the hijab.
Tayah Jabara, a 20-year-old content creator, hopes the trend can help people understand the hijab. In a TikTok video, she said she essentially welcomed the balaclava craze, as long as no-veiled balaclava wearers kept one thing in mind: If they feel warm, comfortable, safe, or cute in their knitted headscarf, she hoped they would. understand she feels the same while wearing her hijab.
“I think if men or non-Muslim women or people without a veil see hijabs, they see it as some kind of strange, medieval punishment,” Ms Jabara said in an interview. “If people like trends that happen to match the standards of the hijab, I’m all for it, because in my opinion I want my modesty to be seen as a fashionable option.”
Ms. Matoshi, whose mother wears a hijab, has designed ornate balaclavas decorated with jewels, feathers and knitted teddy bears. She hopes her creations can contribute to a better understanding of headscarves and provide another path for accessories for those who choose to cover up their hair.
“I know that women who wear hijabs are judged a lot in society. My mother has a hijab,” she said. “I’m glad that women with a hijab find something fun and creative to wear. Maybe it could be a way for people to see it as a good thing.”
Yet it remains a nuanced issue. Leah Vernon, a 34-year-old content creator who has been wearing a hijab since she was seven, said she was criticized for her choice to wear a headscarf and that it kept her from getting a job.
Seeing the balaclava become so popular now “evokes a ‘damn, it’s so easy to wear it as a costume’,” she said. “So to just turn it on and off, I definitely feel some kind of slight betrayal.”