The recurring accessories in all of their photos: headscarves, or hijabs, which they began wearing when they turned 12. They’re devout Muslims, and their religion requires donning the lightweight headgear and modest dress for the rest of the body when they’re in public. It means part of their religious and cultural identities is visible for all to see, and this is often where they get creative.
On a frigid January day, Aateka’s scarf is peach with mesh knitting around its hem. And Marwa’s blue scarf works double duty: It features a fringe hem draped around her neck, where the scarf’s fabric ends, creating the effect of a necklace.
Sophisticated and unfussy, their style isn’t the only thing their Instagram account helps them hone. Often the only Muslim women at their workplaces – Marwa is a speech therapist and Aateka works in human resources – they’ve become used to questions about Muslim culture, especially now that their sartorial choices reach thousands of eyeballs.
“You don’t have to be of a certain faith to wear a coat,” Marwa says, explaining that their primary goal is to be relatable. Striking that balance between faith and fashion seems to have paid off. Within two months of launching, they had more than 2,000 followers, and by the beginning of 2016, they had reached 16,000. Women and girls as young as 8, of many religious persuasions, began telling them how much they appreciated the photos and their mix of light applications of faith and fashion. Their appeal is also wide-reaching. Women and girls have stopped them in public, and only a few have been wearing hijabs. The Samaras’ popularity may signal a shift in acceptance, aided by the immediacy of social media, and they’re part of a trend. Modest fashion blogs, penned by conservative Christians and Muslims alike, have proliferated. In 2014, the Milwaukee Public Museum hosted an exhibit exploring the many different styles of Middle Eastern dress. In January, Italian designer Dolce & Gabbana introduced a line of hijabs and abayas – the flowing floor-length dresses common in the Middle East. Fashion magazines rejoiced. “When will other brands follow suit?” asked Vogue.
It wasn’t always this way.
Before moving to Milwaukee, the Samaras lived in Rochester, N.Y., where Marwa, the oldest of five siblings, experienced severe bullying after the September 11 attacks. The family moved to Milwaukee soon afterward, and her father enrolled her in Hamilton High School. “Being brown wasn’t really a big deal” at the Southwest Side school, she says. “It’s kind of like they were used to it.” Aateka had a different experience at Rufus King High School, but she delighted in responding to occasionally insulting queries. “We’re religiously required to cut off our ears,” she recalls telling a stunned inquirer. It was only after her classmate’s shock subsided that she would explain the religious reasons for wearing her scarf. “You gotta just laugh it off,” she says.
The sisters’ dry brand of humor translates well for Instagram, and it’s a strength they plan to use when expanding to a full website within the year. Their goals include blogging about modest activewear, swimwear and Muslim clothing. Mostly, Marwa says, “We want to show why we’re very normal.”
Tune in to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” March 21 at 10 a.m. to hear more about this story.