10 Minutes With Shareefah Andu
By Jemi Ekunkunbor
For those who know Shareefah Andu, it is an open secret that she wears her Islamic faith like a precious ornament. When she kicked off her chain of businesses with the opening of Arabel, it was to give to members of the Muslim faith, the first Islamic one-stop lifestyle shop. Arabel, today, has moved on to manufacturing very stylish head covering pieces designed for the discerning woman. Always on point with trend, the shop, with several outlets in Lagos, also stocks the Islamic two-piece swim wear – burkini – that has generated so much friction between the French authorities and members of the Muslim community as well as launched a world-wide debate on whether the swim wear, designed by Aheda Zanetti in 2004, is truly “a symbol of the enslavement of women” as pointed out by French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. Mrs. Andu reacts.
What is your reaction to the uproar about the Muslim swim suit called burkini?
I think everybody has a right to live and practice his or her faith. If somebody feels comfortable going around naked and somebody else feels comfortable covering up, why should anybody stop the one who likes to cover herself? It is not harming anybody and this burkini that they are talking about it’s not like hijab that is big and full; it is like a track suit and if you have anything hidden anywhere, it will still be seen. The basic things people should understand about the Muslim woman is that she is saying: I want to swim, I want to cover myself, I don’t want my body to show but, I still want to enjoy the water. There is nothing sinister about that. It’s not like the burka that the Afghanistan or the Talibans wear. This one covers the body nicely.
I think people are just getting paranoid and unnecessarily defensive. A Muslim woman going to the beach just wants to enjoy the sun. It’s usually very cold in Europe and you have just a few months of Summer; so, she wants to enjoy nature and you are stalking her? I think that is against her fundamental human rights. For me, I don’t see anything sinister about the swim suit. It’s actually very stylish and very simple. It clings to the body when you are in water. It’s like lycra so you can’t even strap anything there because you can see everything.
But in the face of security challenges all around, shouldn’t other beach users be worried especially since the design covers all the body?
That is what the religion dictates; that you cover your body. But, I insist that they are not covering in a sinister manner. You wear a trouser, a small dress and then your hijab. If you are wearing something that is covering everywhere that you can’t even see the face, then you can start getting apprehensive. But not with the burkini. So people should not panic unnecessarily because the terrorists are also killing Muslims.
But as a designer yourself, can’t the design be tweaked a bit; like, must you cover the head in water?
As a Muslim woman, you must cover up at all times – even in water! If there is a women-only beach, then they can feel free to relax with other women. But as long as we don’t have women-only beaches, our religion does not say you should leave your hair open. If when you cover your hair, why would you want to leave it open because you are at the beach?
What are the styles available?
Here at Arabel, we stock swim suits and track suits that are Muslim compliant. We want to do sports, we want to be healthy, we want to be everything that anybody can be but we still want to do it as Muslims.
There are even Christians who are conservative and who will not want to show their bodies in public. They would love these burkini. They may wear it without the head-wrap. So, I am recommending this for non- Muslims who are conservative and want to cover themselves. They are still stylish without the head piece.
You are known for your stylish turbans. What styles do you have available now?
We have all Cleopatras but we are now getting into what I call, ‘the cheap and cheerful range’. They are so easy to wear because in everything that we do, we have to look for ease of usage and that’s what we are working on. Now, we have the simple, stylish ones that are already wrapped; that you can just wear. We have layered Cleopatra and we have sheries. The turban is like the Muslim gift to the fashion world. Everybody wears turbans now; Muslims and Christians and it’s very stylish. It’s like a unifying factor. I wish we can take it beyond fashion so we can actually be the same. Why should we now have discord and start killing each other?
You’ve always been an inspiration for many Muslim women. What makes the covered woman tick?
You have to have it in you. It’s about coordinating and wanting to stand out anywhere you are and still protect your dignity. Right now, there are many ways you can do that.
As a person, I am very open to ideas. I am not stereotypical. I don’t lock myself up.
You are very fashionable. Don’t you have problems with your fellow Muslims?
There was a day I was on TV a long time ago and one woman called and said, ‘you spoke very well and represented us well but I think you are too flashy’. And, I’m like ‘oh, oh! But that is me’. I don’t think I want to look gloomy being a Muslim. I want to look happy and to show that God has been merciful to me. I want to be me. But, I won’t go outside of my faith and I won’t over do it. Whatever I do, I will do it in moderation. There are many things one can wear and not show any body parts or be indecently exposed.
What do you like to wear?
Kimonos are in vogue now. I just got a number of them now which I can layer or wear with a pair of trousers. I wear a lot of turtle neck blouses and I wear my turbans.
In our clime, how do you cope with the heat covering up?
In some Arab countries, their weather would be as high as 45-50 degrees and they still cover when they are going out and here, it is about 35 degrees maximum. So, it’s not so hot that you can’t cover. I used to have some reactions around the neck but I got used to it and managed it. We have outfits in cotton material and you can wear your turban. But if you are going to wear the hijab, then you don’t wear the turban.
For accessories, what do you like?
I like to wear gold; the 18-carat gold but because of the situation in the country, I experiment with beads; corals especially. I like pearls also. These are not so flashy that people would be looking at you. So I experiment with these for now. I also like some precious stones. The country is very volatile so we have to tone down and adapt. When things start getting better and everybody is happy again, which I know and believe, then I will start wearing my gold again.