Friday, 25 March 2011

Looking Back | Oman Fashion Week

Women's Fashion
By JOSH WINTERS in NYTimes (Copyright, All Rights Reserved)
March 25, 2011, 5:00 pm

The Sultanate of Oman occupies the corner of the Arabian Peninsula nearest India, and lies between Dubai and Yemen. In broad strokes, this is a fair social description as well as geographical. The ancient city of Muscat is picturesquely nestled among a craggy collection of low mountains that run right into the sea. The bare rocky massifs yield occasionally to sandy beaches and the deep natural harbors that have made the city a hub of Indian Ocean trade for thousands of years.

Oman is an absolute monarchy that has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said since 1970. Unlike many of its counterparts throughout the Arab world, it had seen minimal unrest until February 25, when tensions flared in the port city of Sohar. (Despite the disturbance, respect for the sultan remains widespread, even among protesters.) As a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Oman is a peer of the fabulously wealthy and tyrannical oil states of the Gulf.

Oman under Sultan Qaboos has pursued an unusual path to modernization, having closed its borders for much of the 1970s to put its house in order. This attitude of carefully planned growth is most immediately visible in its urban planning, with the whitewashed traditional houses still holding pride of place along the capital’s perfectly manicured streets. Oman does, however, face many of the other problems as its GCC neighbors: low functional literacy, insufficient white-collar jobs to satisfy the expectations of an overwhelmingly young population and the strain of being a traditional Islamic society in an increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitan context.

I was recently in Oman for Muscat Fashion Week, which featured 12 designers from Oman and elsewhere in the region. The event was the first of its kind in the sultanate — the first of many, according to the organizer, His Excellency Sultan Hamood, mayor of Muscat Municipality. Just hours before Tuesday’s shows, we stood on the stunning outdoor runway, set halfway up a rocky promontory overlooking Muscat’s quiet harbor. His Excellency is an energetic man with ambitious plans for his city to become the region’s fashion capital. He told me how the whole idea had come together in three weeks, in the hands of a Danish group that is responsible for Copenhagen Fashion Week. Despite the short preparation time, the production was as strikingly beautiful as it was effortlessly punctual.

The Gulf is perhaps the most gown-centric fashion scene in the world. The basic unit of socializing in conservative Arab societies is the wedding. Zeina, a 28-year-old Omani woman, said she receives two or three wedding invitations a week. She said the weddings have grown more lavish in the last decades, and now nearly all of them take place over several days. The weddings are strictly segregated along gender lines, meaning that Omani women are in a pitched and incessant fashion war, without many distracting social elements, nor men to get in the way of pure glamorous competition. The traditional black silk robe (the abaya) that is worn in public is shed in favor of lavishly embellished gowns once they’re inside the wedding venue.

The societal restrictions on dress make the logistics of runway shows a bit different from the usual fashion event. The first nine shows were open to ladies only. The models were Indian models from Dubai, as it would have been taboo for an Omani woman to be seen on a catwalk.

The opening show of the week was Robert Abi Nader, a designer whose flair for fabulous gowns has made his name in Beirut and Paris, producing outrageous event dresses and even a private jet interior for elegant clients whose fortunes are often of unconventional origin. Over double espressos at the Al-Bustan Palace, I asked him where most of his dresses go: “Central Africa, the Gulf, Russia, all over, you know,” he said. When I asked him if he dealt with any high-profile clients, he said, “I don’t name names, and I don’t work with Hollywood clients; my ladies don’t like that kind of attention.” In the audience for the Abi Nader show was Her Highness Sayyida Ghalya bint Fahar al Said of the Royal Family, whose presence created quite a stir among the other attendees.

Also showing that night was the Kabul-based line Zarif, designed by Zolaykha Sherzad. It is the best of a few fashion lines based in Kabul, making use of the extraordinary silks, brocades and distinctive cottons produced in the subcontinent. This show was strong on the impeccably tailored silk jackets that define the label. Several new silhouettes on the runway Tuesday night were from the collection I had reviewed in its Kabul studio in Afghanistan in May. Emphasis remained on detail, with distinctive Kabul-made alloy buttons and complex cuts on the cuffs and collars of the striped jackets, which covered the spectrum from long swallow-tail cuts to high-waisted jackets.

Over the next two nights, eight designers sent collections down the runway. The glittery, gauzy Punjabi suits of the Omani designer Anisa al Zadjali demonstrated the cultural proximity to India; Fadi Nahle, a Lebanese wedding specialist, sent a parade of fabulous ruffles and glitter; Shrekahnth, an Indian label, showed custom print kurtas and separates with jarring colors. Meanwhile, Hanaa al-Wahaibi stood out from the other Omani traditionalists. Her brightly colored pants and kurtas had precise fit and tailoring, a rarity in a scene where drape dominates.

The event closed with Dar Dibaj, the vibrant joint effort of Afaf and Aida al-Farsi. These striking Omani sisters are sophisticated traditionalists, whose restraint with the shiny stuff and use of black and white endeared them to Dubai buyers, among others. The two were clearly the darlings of Muscat Fashion Week, and their elegant gowns were the best demonstration of Arab fashion taking a stride forward without sacrificing cultural mores.

Riz Khan - Mother of the revolution

Monday, 21 March 2011

British Muslim who entered Miss Universe contest receives death threat

Shanna Bukhari was subjected to a tide of online hate after entering the British heats of the beauty contest. Now she fears her life could be in danger

The Observer, Sunday 20 March 2011 (Copyright all rights reserved)
Mark Townsend

When Shanna Bukhari decided she wanted to be the first Muslim to represent Britain in a global beauty pageant, she suspected the road ahead might not be smooth, but nothing could have prepared her for the abuse she received.

"I have felt in fear for my life," said the 24-year-old Miss Universe contestant. The attacks escalated last week when Bukhari received her first death threat.

The censure has come from various quarters, ranging from Muslims who claim that she is denigrating the name of Islam, to white supremacists who say that an Asian cannot represent the UK, and to women who condemn beauty pageants as an affront to feminism.

Bukhari, born in Blackburn, grew up in Lancashire and is no stranger to intolerance. When she was nine, she ended up in hospital after a man screaming racist abuse had thrown a brick at her, causing so much damage to her stomach that she suffered a blood clot and had to undergo surgery.

But even she has been surprised by the furore that her participation in the British heats of Miss Universe has prompted. Rather than confirming her hopes that society had progressed since her childhood, the controversy has made her question the state of multiculturalism in modern Britain. "It has highlighted the divisions that exist, a lack of social integration, a lack of adhesion between white and coloured people, and this needs to be addressed," she said. "I thought my participation might be something that people did not agree with, but I never thought I'd get abused."

The attacks on the Manchester-based English literature graduate began after a local newspaper ran an article 10 days ago revealing her ambition to become the first Muslim to represent Great Britain at the beauty contest. Since then, she has received around 300 messages a day on her Facebook page, a handful of which are abusive. Most of the negative comments have come from a minority of Muslim men. "I get people saying, 'you're not a Muslim' and 'you're using religion to get attention'. I said they were the ones bringing religion into it. I'm not representing Islam; I just want to represent my country, and of that I am very proud. They are trying to control me, using religion as a tool to attack."

Bukhari accuses her abusers of having the same sort of mindset as those who support "honour" killings and beat women. Many of the comments are, she says, from individuals who want sharia law instead of a liberal democracy. "We simply live in a multicultural society where there are significant numbers of Muslims. Islam is about peace; abusing me is itself wrong in Islam."

Away from the religious-themed criticism, Bukhari detects a broader anti-female resentment from men who combine sleaze with slurs. "Maybe it's because I'm a woman saying to other women 'stand up for yourself, don't let anyone dictate what you can do or can't'. Some men don't like that," she said.

But not all the abuse is from men: Bukhari has also attracted opprobium from feminists. "I've had a few girls saying 'shame on you' or 'rot in hell'. But I'd like to know what their real issues are, so we could have a constructive debate."

The abuse that truly shocked Bukhari arrived last Tuesday in the form of an online racist rant. Within hours she had shut down her Facebook fan page, but a friend was then sent a number of internet links to images of people murdered for standing up for their principles. "She rang up and said, 'Shanna, you need to be very careful because he's trying to make me aware that things will happen'. Not a direct death threat perhaps, but he was trying to say that something is going to happen to me."

Bukhari takes the threat of physical violence seriously. She makes sure she is never alone, both in her Manchester flat and on the city streets, and has contacted a private security firm for protection when attending charity events to raise money for the Joshua Foundation, a charity for terminally ill children. She fears that Britain's Miss Universe finals in Birmingham in May will also be a target: "It worries me that haters will turn up. I know what they are capable of."

One Facebook message calls her a "dirty Muslim" and asks why she is representing Britain "when you don't even fucking belong here". Bukhari said: "I actually replied to him in a very calm manner because I'm not one to retaliate, my family taught me to rationalise rather than react. Then I thought 'why can't I represent Britain?' I was born here and am proud to be British. My parents are from Pakistan but I am not going to represent Pakistan as this is my country."

Bukhari says the abuse has been disillusioning partly because she enjoyed a liberal upbringing; her parents sent her to a Catholic school in Blackburn where she was the only Muslim but was "completely accepted". It was only when she moved to Manchester in 2001, she said, that she became aware of segregation as an issue. She does not agree with David Cameron's speech last month in which he asserted that state multiculturalism in Britain had failed. She believes that more must be done to break down mistrust.

Bukhari cites the thousands who have offered their backing. Support has come from Spain, the Middle East, Pakistan, India and China. Most women supporters say she represents not just a role model for Muslim women, but all those who refuse to be cowed by bullies.

During last month's semi-final for Britain's Miss Universe candidate Bukhari received the most public votes. Britain has never won the title. It is increasingly possible that its first victor might also be its first Muslim representative.