x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A princess for a day, an Islamic fashion statement for life

A visit to Istanbul wearing a flamboyant headpiece taught a lesson about Islamic dress: a splash of personality goes a long way.

Like many young girls who grew up reading fairy tales, I always wondered what it would be like to be a princess.

I dreamt and prayed that one day I would slip into her shoes - or, rather, her diamond-encrusted slippers. Little could I have guessed that it would be the creative and modern styling of my traditional Islamic dress that would evoke the aura of royalty and elevate my status to that of a temporary VIP.

The backdrop to my fashion adventure was an old Ottoman palace on the banks of the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

Everything about the Çiragan Palace screams royalty: it was built for a sultan in the 1860s and since it was turned into a hotel by the Kempinski chain in 1992 it has been the stop-off for heads of state, royalty and Bollywood celebrities.

On a recent visit to the Turkish city, when I donned a rather flamboyant headpiece on top of my hijab, I learnt an important lesson about Islamic dress: a splash of personality goes a long way.

I've always thought that the traditional Islamic dress that women wear outside the home - meant for modesty - could use a bit of spice. Sure, the garment is made to be somewhat bland because, well, the hijab's purpose is to hide a woman's beauty. It should not attract too much attention.

But a little flair?

Arab women around the world have adopted their own unique ways of wrapping their headscarves. Sometimes just by looking at the hijab it's possible to tell if a woman is from Kuwait, Saudi or the Levant.

Others develop their own unique way of arranging their scarves to send a message about their character. With a little creativity, Islamic fashion can be stylish, even eye-catching.

When I was growing up in the '90s it rarely was. Women who tried to be fashionable found it hard to be so: the clothes that offered modesty lacked style and variation.

When my older twin sisters started wearing it 20 years ago, theirs looked anything but stylish. It seemed to me that if a woman wished to cover up she had to forego all hope of being fashionable, at least in public.

In the past 10 years or so, however, fashionable hijabs have started to appear in countless new fabrics, colours and styles. Some designers are even choosing to specialise in the garments. This has encouraged more members of the younger generation to wear the hijab, as they realise they can still appear trendy.

I, for one, have taken this to heart.

The bright yellow headband I sported in Istanbul is made of flowers, ribbons and feathers, and has tulle netting that extends down over the face, covering one eye.

My initial decision to wear it was for practical reasons - to keep my hijab in place and stop it from flying around as we toured the old city in freezing wind.

But as I explored Istanbul in my unusual headgear, strangers started coming up to me asking if they could take my photo.

One man wanted me to be in a picture with him. He showed me photos of himself with the celebrated Egyptian actress Somaya El Khashab, as if to tell me I was not the first "celebrity" he'd had his photo taken with.

Back at the Çiragan Kempinski, I walked the halls and climbed the stairs in another hat I had bought from the bazaar. It was pink and beige, quite large, and was adorned with a big flower.

Again I was treated like a princess at the hotel's elegant Turkish hamam where I bathed in a cloud of foam until I felt like I sparkled. The singing masseuse was a bonus.

My regal fantasy took on a life of its own as some of the guests mistook me for royalty.

"Who is the princess?" I heard some Saudi visitors whisper.

An Emirati guest asked my friend who I was after I walked by.

I carried my VIP attitude with me all the way to the airport. Catching sight of my hat, one German passenger stopped in the aisle to announce: "You are the spring."

My final triumph was arriving back in Abu Dhabi. As we approached passport control, officials gestured to me the front of the line. "We saw your hat and thought you must be some VIP," they explained.

I'm not, of course.

But I was for a day, on the banks of the Bosphorus, living my fashion fairy tale.

What shall I wear tomorrow?