Hijabs for Canadian life

Student’s business sells headcoverings suitable for sports, winter, work

January 24, 2008

Judy Gerstel, Living Reporter TheStar.com

Abeer Al-Azzawi, a 24-year-old Muslim grad student at Carleton University in Ottawa, doesn’t wear a hijab.

But she designs, sews, markets and sells them, for around $20, through her website, queendom-hijabs.com.

One style is made of fleece for the Canadian winter. Another has a Canadian (or British or American) flag. Her sports hijab is designed to be safe and comfortable to wear while participating in athletics.

Queendom Hijabs began less than a year ago as a Summer Company project, a program of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation. “I always wanted to start my own business,” says the engineering graduate, who is now studying international development. “And I like shopping – and I saw there was no hijab label.”

Malls are full of stores catering to “preppy girls and rocker girls,” Al-Azzawi says, “but there was nothing for the hijabi girl.”

Despite the proliferation of “workout stores like Lululemon,” she says, “if a girl was looking for a sports hijab, there was nothing.”

In November, an 11-year old Manitoba girl was told she couldn’t participate in a judo event while wearing her hijab because of safety issues. Similar concerns and controversy came up last year at athletic events in Ottawa and Montreal.

Al-Azzawi says she makes sports hijabs that fit snugly, with no loose ends and no pins needed to fasten them. Her cold-weather hijabs can be worn alone or over a hat. “It’s for the real Canadian winter,” she says, with fleece inside, nylon outside so it’s waterproof. Al-Azzawi also makes knitted and colourful hijabs, like toques.

Al-Azzawi, who emigrated from Iraq with her family when she was 13, had never sewed before starting her business but now sews most of the Queendom hijabs and gets help from her mother and brother for the rest.

She’s sold about 75 so far through her website. Competition includes such websites as thehijabshop.com, based in Britain.

Al-Azzawi says Queendom is the only Canadian label for sports and specialized hijabs. And she’s hoping to arrange a product placement on Little Mosque on the Prairie.

But when she contacted Canadian retail stores about carrying her line, they weren’t interested.

“They said, `It’s not for our market.’ People are really scared of the hijab because of all the negative connotations – that women might be forced to wear them, that women wearing hijabs are associated with Muslim terrorists.”

That’s too bad, she says, because “the hijab is something really great … It takes negative attention away from the body and hair and forces the onlooker to look into the woman’s eyes and listen to her thoughts.”

So why doesn’t she wear it?

“Maybe one day, but right now I’m not ready for it,” she says. “It requires such self-restraint, so much discipline and modesty, carrying yourself in a modest way.”

Instead, she designs hijabs for “Western girls growing up here, to have an outlet, to make it okay and normal for these girls and not make their religion and culture unusual.”

Maybe that’s why her favourite is the white hijab with a red border and a Canadian flag.

“It says so many things – that it’s accepted, and that you’re aware of that.”