Q&A: Nateka Pitter, the Muslim designer who’s making “modest fashion” happen
Toronto’s first International Muslim Fashion and Design Festival, a two-day event dedicated to empowering Muslim women through “modest fashion,” is happening this weekend. Its founder is Nateka Pitter, a 26-year-old convert to Islam who designs a local clothing label called Victorious Me. (“Fashionable expression without exposure” is its slogan.) We spoke with Pitter about the upcoming event, how she came around to the hijab, and what “modest fashion” really means, anyway.
How did you end up converting to Islam?
For years I was a Christian and after that I was an atheist. I knew there was a higher being, but I didn’t believe in anything. A lot of my friends were Muslim, and I would debate religion with them. When I really sat down and took a look at Islam, I realized it made a lot of sense to me. I was a club-goer and I loved going out, but the more I got into Islam the more I started stepping away from that.
And how did you get into fashion?
I was always interested in fashion, but when I became Muslim, I found that there wasn’t really anything available for that community. That was one of my struggles: I was into Western fashion, like many other Muslim girls who were born in North America, but found that we weren’t being catered to. There was nothing for us.
Did you have any preconceived notions about what fashion in the Muslim world was like? How did you feel about the hijab?
The hijab was a struggle, because it wasn’t something I was born with. I still struggle with it, especially when I go out to places and people point at me or tell me to take it off. Of course it’s more appealing to have your hair out, but at the same time, you’re doing it for your faith. It’s a struggle I think a lot of Muslim women have.
I think there’s a belief among people who aren’t familiar with Islam that the hijab is repressive.
People tell me I’m oppressed all the time. But I’m not oppressed, because there’s nobody oppressing me. When I learned about Islam, there were so many rules and regulations, and I kept wondering why. But the more you look into Islam, and the more you look into why people live that way, the more you begin to understand it. It’s funny, because you wonder why anyone would want to wear a hijab. But it’s kind of like becoming a nun. A nun takes an oath, saying that she wants to serve God. With Islam, the media portrays women as being oppressed. I think it’s political propaganda. You’d never say that a nun is oppressed, yet they wear almost exactly the same thing. She’s only missing one piece of cloth across her face. They’re also covered head-to-toe, but no one ever disrespects them. It makes you wonder where the hate stems from.
In some Muslim countries, it must be difficult for a woman to dress against the religious doctrine.
Definitely, and that’s not right. In Islam, you have freedom of choice. No one is supposed to force your choice of clothing. Not your father, nobody. It’s supposed to be your decision.
Did you start wearing religious clothing as soon as you became Muslim?
I started right away, and it was a big change because I had never worn modest clothing before. But I wanted my family and others to take me seriously, so I decided that dressing this way was best for me. At first, I only wore black. There was no sense of fashion. In Islam, there’s no focus on clothing—it’s about serving your lord. A lot of times, women dress to outshine other women, or to get compliments from a man. With Islam, the whole intention of dressing is to eliminate that feeling. We’re not here to impress people.
How did your family react when they saw you dressing that way?
At first they thought it was a joke. Then they were like, “you’re crazy.” But now I think they’re at a stage where they’ve accepted it.
Is modest fashion the same thing as Muslim fashion?
There’s a difference. Islamic fashion isn’t fashion: it’s about loose garments and not showing your shape or drawing attention. Modest fashion, on the other hand, is about being fashionable without having to wear short or revealing clothing.
Tell me about what you’re wearing right now.
I’m eclectic. I like things that are unique. It’s summer, and I’m wearing a long-sleeve top, but I still try to keep the garments loose. There are many different schools of thought in Islam: the Shiites don’t believe you have to wear a hijab at all. But I’m Sunni. I’m just wearing an Aztec cardigan, a long dress and a hijab.
I imagine you’ve heard this before, but “modest fashion” seems like an oxymoron. For a lot of people, the whole idea of fashion is to push boundaries and social conventions.
Immodesty only came about recently, but fashion has always existed. If you think about what people used to wear, the fashion was in the fabric, the style of clothing or the cut. It had nothing to do with whether the clothes were revealing or not. But even people who are extremely religious or don’t have any fashionable ambitions still take care of their garments. They still take care in how they present themselves. There’s fashion in everything that we do.