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Culture

Giving the Headscarf a Makeover

Even as the headscarf row simmers in Germany, a Berlin Muslim has designed colorful alternative headgear that serves the purpose of a traditional hijab but looks like anything but. Finding takers is a problem.

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Daring to be different - Emel Algan

On a sunny winter morning, Emel Algan drives up in a black Mini car to the office of her Islamic women's organization in Berlin's largely Turkish Kreuzberg district, her pixie-like face framed by a swath of striking pink fabric.

Indoors, Algan (photo) does a quick fashion show as she exchanges her cleverly-woven bright hood cum scarf for a jaunty shaded green silk hat with an attached piece of fabric that buttons under the chin and flows to the chest and a floral patterned bandanna-like creation that gathers in at the back of the head.

Emel Algan Porträtfoto Foto: Sonia Phalnikar Leiterin islamischer Frauenverein Berlin Cemiyet-i Nisa

Emel Algan

"It looks so colorful and yet it's just so practical," Algan says. "It does away with the thousands of safety pins that you need for a conventional Muslim headscarf and at the same time covers the throat, hair and ears," she adds.

Tradition and modernity

The latter is important for 43-year-old Algan, a religious Muslim and mother of six, who has worn the traditional Muslim hijab or headscarf since her childhood spent in small towns in Germany.

In recent months, the Muslim headscarf has been the subject of sometimes heated debate in Germany about its place in society, and in particular in state-run institutions.

Algan herself incorporates a mixture of tradition and modernity. She studied English language and literature at college and now heads a Muslim women's organization. She began toying with fashionable alternatives to the conventional headscarf a year ago.

"I was unhappy with the widespread prejudices in Germany against headscarf-wearing Muslim women, prejudices like 'they're dumb and servile.' I had nothing to do with all that but I felt like I was being branded the same on account of my headscarf," Algan explains.

Search for the neutral Islamic headscarf

The turmoil brought Algan last year to the doorstep of milliner Susanne Gäbel, who runs a hat shop in the upscale Charlottenburg neighborhood.

"I'm no designer, all I knew is that I wanted something functional yet attractive that wouldn't look like the traditional headscarf," Algan says.

Emel Algan Porträtfoto Foto: Sonia Phalnikar Leiterin islamischer Frauenverein Berlin Cemiyet-i Nisa

Emel Algan

Gäbel says the request was an unusual one. "I didn't have any experience with Islamic headscarves, though I had done something traditional for Jewish customers and for women who had undergone chemotherapy and wanted to cover their heads," she says.

The search for the neutral, non-radical Islamic headscarf has resulted in a series of nine innovative headscarf models in varying colors and materials. Some resemble Charleston hats, others Nordic felt caps, and they all meet the needs of those Muslim women who interpret the Koran as requiring they cover their hair, ears and throat.

"Most of them are like ski caps or hoods with ear flaps that can be simply slipped over the head without needing any buttons or zips. The fabric has to be elastic like jersey and felt," Gäbel explains. The alternative headscarves start at €50 and are custom-made for each individual.

A new person

Algan, who has now permanently swapped her conventional hijab for the alternative headscarf, says it's made her feel like a different person. "Every morning when I get up I ask myself what I want to wear because I can now combine my wardrobe with my colorful headgear," she says.

The change isn't just external either. "With the new headscarf I feel like I'm more accepted in a positive sense. It could be just a banal conversation with the cashier at the supermarket about the weather, but now non-Muslims actually notice me and aren't afraid of contact," she says.

Strict social controls

Algan adds she has no plans to sell the headgear on a commercial basis, but wants to convince younger Muslim girls and women to try it out and in doing so, sidestep a proposed ban on the Islamic headscarf in state-run institutions in Berlin. She's now started a women's discussion group to that purpose.

"I'm doing all this to just provide some ideas for Muslim women, to provide them with an alternative -- after all as far as Islam goes, there are no rules dictating how we should dress. We can wear what we want as long as we cover ourselves," Algan says.

But delivering the message is proving harder than expected. "The reactions have been very reserved so far. Unfortunately, social controls are so strong in Muslim society that even if the girls are interested, they don't have the freedom to express themselves. They're worried about what their husbands and mothers-in-law will think," Algan says. "This traditional thinking is still deeply-ingrained in Muslims here though four generations of them now live here."

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