Can the headscarf be high street as well as haute couture? This week, the American retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is being sued for allegedly not accepting it as part of its "look", whereas the high fashion world of Milan is inviting it in. What's going on?
Employed in the San Francisco Bay area, 20-year-old hijab-wearing Hani Khan is suing the company because she claims she was fired for refusing to remove her headscarf, even though she was given the go-ahead to wear it when she was recruited as long as it fitted with company colours.
The speculation is that Abercrombie & Fitch has a "look policy" which employees must fit into, and Khan's headscarf didn't fit. An Oklahoma woman is also suing for being denied a sales role due to her headscarf. If a "look policy" does exist, then it has got A&F into trouble in the past, although they make it clear they admit to no wrongdoing. In 2004, they paid out US$40 million (Dh147m) to several thousand minority and female plaintiffs as part of settling race and gender discrimination lawsuits.
Is a corporation right to enforce a "look" because that is what it claims its consumers want in order to buy into the "image" of the brand? Is it the case that a headscarf can't be part of that look? There was a time when black employees didn't fit a look either and customers being turned away was cited as the reason for not employing them.
At the haute couture end of the spectrum, this week's news is that the Islamic Fashion Festival (IFF) has been invited to participate in next year's Milan Fashion Week. Along with New York, Paris and London, Milan is one of the four staple calendar events for the western world's fashion industry.
The IFF, held under the patronage of the Malaysian First Lady since 2006, has exhibited in Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi, Astana, Dubai, Jakarta, Monte Carlo, New York, and Singapore and next month London.
"The Islamic fashion industry is worth US$96 billion a year globally and, contrary to popular belief, it's not just Muslim women who contribute to this figure," says the IFF chairman, Datuk Raja Rezza Shah.
As far as fashion is concerned the most important thing that Milan Fashion Week's decision demonstrates is that fashion by its very nature is not a static thing. It realises that fashion is constantly looking for new influences, and is shaped by grassroots trends, as well as different cultures. Its decision acknowledges that fashion is a global phenomenon, and that the rising market is with young Muslim consumers, consumers who make up 11% of the world population, consumers who embrace and fuse together both fashion and faith in order to express their identity. For them to recognise that influence as well as profitability will be driven in great part from the growing, fashionable young Muslim populations is not surprising. In fact, if anything, it is long overdue.
Abercrombie & Fitch has failed to realise these facts. If the allegations against it are true, then it will have done the wrong thing - not only because it is wrong to discriminate, but also because it will have misunderstood the very nature of fashion, which is to give voice to rising trends. But most of all they will be wrong because they have failed to realise that achieving a "look" is not a cookie-cutter activity.
We live in an age when personalisation is the big buzzword. This means that achieving a "look" is about attitude and zeitgeist, high-street or haute-couture, headscarf or no headscarf.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk