On one of the holiest nights of Ramadan, Marwa Atik chose a crowded Southern California mosque to debut her latest creation.
It was just after midnight when the 20-year-old walked into the Islamic Center of Irvine, dressed in a long, flowing burgundy robe, her head wrapped in a charcoal-colored chiffon hijab, trimmed with decorative gold zippers.
After the group prayers, sermon and Koran recitation, a woman approached Atik, gesturing at the scarf. "OK, I want one," she said excitedly. "How can I get it?"
Atik has taken the Muslim head scarf, often known as hijab, and turned it into a canvas for her fashion sensibilities, with ideas inspired by designs from Forever 21 and H&M as well as haute couture runways and the pages of Vogue and Elle. Showing her latest design at a mosque was her way of gauging sentiment on scarves that go beyond the limited fashion realm they have thus far inhabited, such as floral and geometric prints or lace and beaded embellishments.
"I knew that I wanted to do a zipper scarf, because I knew that zippers were in style," Atik said, her head covered this day with a sea-foam hijab, echoing the color of her light green eyes.
The hijab has long been a palette of sorts for changing styles and designs, and shops across the Middle East are replete with colors and shapes that can vary from region to region. Some women in the Persian Gulf region wear their hair up in a bouffant with the scarf wrapped around it like a crown. Syrians are known for cotton pull-on scarves, the hijab equivalent of a T-shirt. And in Egypt veiled brides visit hijab stylists who create intricate designs and bouquets of color atop the bride's head.
But Atik's experiments with the hijab, which is meant as a symbol of modesty, are created with an eye toward being more adventuresome and risky.
To some, the trend heralds the emergence of Westernized Muslim women, who embrace both their religion and a bit of rebellion.
But to others in the Muslim community, what Atik is doing flies in the face of the head scarf's purpose. When the scarf is as on-trend as a couture gown, some wonder whether it has lost its sense of the demure.
Eiman Sidky, who teaches religious classes at King Fahd mosque in Culver City, is among those who say attempts to beautify the scarf have gone too far. In countries like Egypt, where Sidky spends part of the year, religious scholars complain that women walk down the street adorned as if they were peacocks.
"In the end they do so much with hijab, I don't think this is the hijab the way God wants it; the turquoise with the yellow with the green," she said.
The conflict is part of a larger debate among Muslims on which practices are too conservative and which too liberal.
And at a time when Muslims hear stories about women filing lawsuits after not getting hired or being barred from wearing head scarves at work — most recently at two Abercrombie & Fitch stores and Disneyland — the message is reinforced that the hijab is still regarded with suspicion.
For women like Atik, an Orange Coast College student who works part time at Urban Outfitters, fashion-forward hijabs are an attempt not only to fill a void, but to make the scarves less foreign and more friendly to non-Muslims.
The Islamic religious parameters for hijab — that the entire body must be covered except for the face and hands — are broad enough to include those who wear black, flowing abayas to those who pair a head scarf with skinny jeans.
"We've gotten maybe just a few people saying, 'Oh, this is defeating the purpose,'" said Tasneem Sabri, Atik's older sister and business partner. "It really comes down to interpretation."
The criticism means little to Atik, a petite young woman who favors skinny jeans, embellished cardigans and knee-high boots.
Atik sees the fashion industry's treatment of the hijab as staid and lackluster. She wants to make the scarves edgier, with fringes, pleats, peacock feathers, animal prints.
"We want to treat the hijab like it's a piece of clothing, because that's what it is, it's not just an accessory," said Nora Diab, a friend of Atik who began the venture with her but bowed out to focus on college. "We can still dress according to what's 'in' while dressing modest."
Scarves from Atik's recent collections are sold under the label Vela, Latin for veil. In addition to the exaggerated zippers, there are Victorian pleats, military buttons and even a black and white scarf with gold clasps named simply Michael (as in Michael Jackson). A recent design features a plain scarf with a large sewn-on bow, called "Blair," after the "Gossip Girl" character. There is also a growing bridal scarf collection.