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Muslim Mom on the Paradox of Faith and Fashion

My mother is an exceptional seamstress. When I was a little girl, we'd spend hours in Los Angeles' fashion district, picking out the most decadent yet cost-effective fabrics she could find. With a keen eye, she would doctor her own trims and create patterns, occasionally watching the latest Bollywood (her hometown) flick for inspiration.

My father was a catalyst to her creativity, pushing her to design pieces that were one of a kind. My parents were immigrants with scanty means in those days, but they never compromised on attire. You could say that I, their American-born daughter, essentially grew up in her own couture haven and that she has them to blame for her extravagant tastes. Just kidding.

Well, not entirely.

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My dad fondly recalls that at dinner parties we'd host when I was around 4, I would run to my room, throw on my blingiest outfit and descend down the hall. I'd slink past each guest as tea flowed and smiles were exchanged—waiting for someone to give me a sign they noticed. This pattern continued, as I'd dash back to change and venture out again. After I'd pranced around in several outfits, one particularly kind aunty would comment, "Vah! (Wow!) Saba has SO many pretty clothes!"

The embodiment of that first, precious social media "like." God bless her.

Fast forward to my tweens. My flamboyance gets lost in a conservative upbringing as not only a first generation Muslim-American female, but also one from the Indian subcontinent. The region where a good portion of my ancestors hail from, Hyderabad, is perhaps the most conservative of all Muslim cultures. I adore the richness of the region—its exquisite culinary masterpieces (dishes can take up to a week to prepare authentically), remnants of royalty from the Mughal Empire and decorum to rival that of the haughtiest Manhattan school of etiquette. In a nutshell, I was raised to be prim and proper, and tradition has been steeped into my bones.

I was rarely encouraged to push boundaries. You simply never, EVER rocked the boat.

As a teen, I pored obsessively over fashion magazines, burning silhouettes of the moment into my young, impressionable brain. I marveled at supermodels who weren't waking up for less than 10 grand a day. Despite all this, I remained a shell of know-how, lacking the means and bravado to flaunt what I was taking in. In a community that encouraged the safe, pushing the envelope with style was allowed only if it was done within guidelines. It couldn't make anyone uncomfortable.

I spent years adhering to all that was expected of me, squishing myself into a little box that never quite fit.

When I married my college sweetheart after graduation (not arranged, hence "adventurous" at that time), all these different parts of my identity were starting to merge together. I was, and always will be, the eldest daughter: responsible and parent-pleasing. My husband, on the other hand, is the youngest of five children, with the confidence of a lion. Always doted upon, he was raised by parents and older siblings who treated him, as a child, to lavish basketball shoes. His eclectic tastes were cause for celebration. Rarely did he have boundaries placed on his self-expression. I was drawn to his mettle in those formative years, and quietly observed how he effortlessly melded all the different parts of himself into a package that no one dared question.

As we raise our sons, 7 and 9, I try to keep the doors open to that self-expression.

It's never a bad idea to look one's best, even while holding onto certain aspects of one's faith.

When my husband ceremoniously mohawk-ed their little newborn heads at home (what's turned into a bit of a tradition for us and continues to this day), it caused a never-ending murmur of disapproval from elders and even community leaders. Initially, I wavered, the grown-up-pleaser in me conflicted. My husband? He never even flinched, his unwavering tide of self-assuredness firmly in tact.

These reservations of mine, though, have also affected my work. I'm someone outwardly adhering to certain tenets of her faith instead of pulling out every card to look the part of the photo-ready bombshell, as is expected when you work in fashion like I do. It's a dichotomy that one can't understand unless we touch on the elephant in the room—the hijab.

Ah, the hijab.

Such a controversial little piece of fabric. The term means much more than restrained clothing. It's a concept, a stunning notion to raise a woman above her beauty, to make her something much more substantial than her appearance alone. (My culture—versus religion—however, places a HUGE emphasis on women and their in-your-face beauty. Again, watch any Bollywood film for reference.) That's the "Islam for Dummies" definition.

There are many reasons women choose to wear the hijab, but I'm not looking to discuss them here. Instead, I want to talk about the challenge it has been to find my way in fashion, indulging this passion of mine, which, ironically enough, is all about appearance. To do this while focusing on my inner, spiritual journey, to strengthen the part of myself that is much harder to prettify—my heart—is a constant struggle.

My philosophy is this: In the real world, we are constantly judged based on how we look. It's never a bad idea to look one's best, even while holding onto certain aspects of one's faith. Freedom of self-expression at its very finest: the American way. In conservative circles, this idea is considered too self-indulgent. In progressive ones, the spiritual restrictions on dress are problematic. Amidst their bickering, I remind myself of this fabulous anecdote:

"Who has forbidden the beautiful gifts of God, which He has produced for His servants?" (7:32)

Me: Gifts of God? Hello, leather handbags and mohair sweaters! I see you, and God wants me to have a grand old time with you. As long as I'm not forking over more of my paycheck to Celine than I am to charity, I am free to enjoy you as I please.

Still, that girl's in there somewhere—part of a whirling, messy dervish of contradictions and harmony that make up who I am.

In today's world of accessible style, having one's finger on the pulse of fashion can sometimes be as easy as browsing the right hashtags on Instagram. A few years ago, I started a business helping friends with what I knew and could translate from the runway into their very real, substantial lives—the lives of teachers, lawyers, housewives, accountants and social workers. If I can make someone feel better through their appearance, it can positively impact all the deeply important work they are doing.

Therein lies my motivation: helping others.

I'm now more gratified helping them than I was blogging my outfit of the day, which is fun, but not always the best use of my time. My #OOTD also didn't have the greatest effect on my heart, which I'm struggling to grow and nurture away from distractions and today's culture of "worship thyself." If I'm too busy planning my next look, so everyone can comment on how cute I appear in one strategic photograph, I already know the dinner-party-parading little girl will reign supreme, inflating my ego and distracting me from more consequential things.

I simply don't have time for that.

Still, that girl's in there somewhere—part of a whirling, messy dervish of contradictions and harmony that make up who I am. Depending on the situation, what blend do I bring forth to tackle the situation at hand? When I succeed at the perfect mix of dinner-party flaunt, poise and etiquette, zeal for glamour, and love and consciousness of the divine, I consider the day to be a success.

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At home, it means enjoying my younger son's insistence on mismatching his socks. He lingers each day in front of his closet. While it infringes on my hustle to get out the door, I usually allow it. Even when I lose patience, he doesn't rush the meticulous pairing of his fuchsia stripe with the yellow argyle.

I'm sure someone's raising an eyebrow somewhere, but at this point, it's purely inconsequential.

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Top photograph by: Sabah Azam Photography

Inside photographs: Saba Ali

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