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The Baati Dress Proves that Modest Fashion Can Be Liberating

Model Halima Aden in the Baati Photo: Jonathan Paciullo / Frenchy Style

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SAFY-HALLAN FARAH

Yeezy model Halima Aden caught the world’s attention earlier this year as the first model on a major fashion runway to wear a hijab. But this summer, as she moves from magazine shoots to judging Miss USA alongside Ashley Graham, fashion-watchers are likely to notice another staple of her everyday style: the baati, a classic cotton dress from her homeland of Somalia that costs less than $20.

Though it’s a sort of house dress, designed in a spirit of one-size-fits-all utilitarianism, the baati conjures elegance and refinement rather than the scraggly bohemianism of the muumuu and caftan. That’s because of the self-possession of the women, usually Somali, who wear it, and because of the baati’s inherent versatility, the way its fluid, wide-sleeved silhouette flips from loungewear-like to dressed-up depending on how it’s styled.

Aden, 19, started wearing baatis when she was eight years old, and has been photographed trekking the globe in them since February, when she signed to IMG Models. “I have found I am wearing them more than ever,” she says. “They are great for wearing on an airplane, when traveling, and perfect for wearing to photo shoots, where I am going to be making clothing changes onsite, and need to be able to do that quickly,” she says. “My favorite thing about baatis is that they are so comfortable and easy to wear, like wearing cozy pajamas.”

Another aspect of the style’s appeal is the way it functions as an instant statement piece. “The prints are so bold it doesn’t need anything else,” says Canadian singer-songwriter Cold Specks. “Sometimes I’ll wear it with a shiny traditional scarf to cover my head. Sometimes I cut the bottom off.” Specks’s music-world peer and Love Army for Somalia activist Amaal Nuux favors the look for reasons of cultural pride: “I always have my baati loose, sometimes tucked it into my goongaarad [a Somali slip worn underneath dresses],” she says. “I’ll accessorize with a gold long necklace and some bracelets. All of this together makes me feel like a Somali queen.”

DJ and fashion designer Deka Abdullahi
Photo: Courtesy of @Fatumas_eye

The summer before sixth grade was the first time I wore a baati, and the first time I experienced that queenly feeling for myself. My paternal grandmother handed me a baati that smelled like her (an old Somali lady smells like frankincense and Ben-Gay, if you’re wondering) in her Columbus, Ohio townhouse, and from then on I was hooked. Wearing it meant I was indeed a woman, not a girl, because baatis had been too long for me the previous year, when I was 4’11. At 5’2”, however, they fit perfectly, and I could wear them every day. I could dress them up or down, shorten or lengthen them, wear them loose or tie them up to make them form-fitting—whatever. Wearing a baati felt free, like being naked. Sometimes I kind of was naked; I wasn’t aware I was supposed to wear a slip underneath, so the silhouette of my legs reflected against the sunlight would leave me exposed. Not that I cared or noticed; this was before the words modesty or shame had entered my lexicon.

During my teens, the baati became my personal version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: a one-size-fits-all dress that symbolizes friendship. Every time I’d go to my best friend’s apartment, she would give me a baati to wear, and I’d quickly stuff the middle of it into my slip, creating a kangaroo-style pouch for my pink suede wallet in case we’d make halal store runs for Vimto and sambusas, so I could feel at home. When my mom was 16 and had just left Somalia, her mother gave her a baati to use as a washable menstrual pad because she couldn’t afford the store-bought version. She would wash the ripped-up baati by hand and reuse it.

Miski Muse
Photo: Courtesy of Miski / @musegold

Modifying the baati based on a specific need signifies agency. Wearing it as a sling to carry a baby is one potential use. Cropping and cinching it into a two-piece ensemble—something I’ve seen on social media a few times—is another possibility. And even if you don’t swim in one for modesty, as people I grew up with did, they’re ideal as beach cover-ups. “Anyone can wear a baati, so in that sense it can’t be appropriated,” says Somali storyteller Hawa Mire. “Sure, you can wear the baati to the beach, but it carries memories and stories for Somali women like the time you didn’t have clothes to wear while visiting your cousins, or the time your parents brought you back a baati from a trip.”

In recent years, I’ve found myself more interested in the garment’s diasporic malleability, the way it becomes whatever we want it to be depending on the context. The fact that there are no rules makes baatis quintessentially modern and unencumbered by cultural restrictions, and I’ve started to interpret them as a symbol of Somali women’s continued resistance post-civil war. Not politicized or imbued with religiosity the way other modesty staples like the hijab, burkini, and abaya are, the baati is all about freedom—proving that Muslim women have it in spades.

 

Diaspora

Somali teenager sets her hopes high for the future

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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – War shattered 14-year-old Manaal’s dreams for the future. Now safe in the Netherlands, with new friends, her spirits are soaring once more.

“I have only been in an airplane once and that is when we arrived here from Somalia,” says Manaal, who fled the country with her family. “In the airplane, I felt butterflies in my stomach the whole time. I saw a movie about a stewardess and she looked so pretty and smart that I decided I want to become a stewardess as well.”

Twenty-eight long years of conflict have left Somalia reeling. The peaceful canals and cafes of Amsterdam, where Manaal found safety in 2014 , have offered the youngster a refuge she could barely have imagined.

Manaal is one of 12 refugee and asylum-seeking children living in Europe who star in a new project that lets their imagination run free.

Titled The Dream Diaries, the project sees the young refugees and asylum-seekers reveal their hopes and dreams from the safety of their new homes in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“In the airplane, I felt butterflies in my stomach
the whole time.”

The series was produced by Humans of Amsterdam photographer Debra Barraud, her colleague Benjamin Heertje, Dutch graphic designer Annegien Schilling, filmmaker Kris Pouw and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

In it, Manaal dreams of becoming an air stewardess. A portrait shows her sitting on the wing of an airplane, soaring through a picturesque evening sky.

After 5 long years of separation from her father, who was the first to flee to Europe in a desperate bid to find a better life for his family, air travel means more to Manaal than most.

“When we arrived at the airport, I finally saw my dad again,” she tells The Dream Diaries team. “So I ran up to him and hugged him really tight.”
“When children flee their home countries, they leave everything behind, except their hopes and dreams,” says co-creator Debra Barraud, whose Humans of Amsterdam photography project has over 400,000 Facebook followers. “Through the project we saw the strength of these children and how with the right support they can achieve anything.”

Audiences are being encouraged to stand #WithRefugees by signing UNHCR’s global petition, which asks decision makers to grant refugees safety, education and opportunities – turning their dreams into reality. You can follow The Dream Diaries series via Humans of Amsterdam, Fetching Tigerss and UNHCR’s social accounts.

“My dream is to be a flight attendant,” says Manaal, who will never forget the elation of her first flight – to safety. “I want to be able to travel, see Paris and have butterflies in my stomach. I want to see the entire world.”

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Diaspora

Maine’s 1st Somali police officer busted at Mass. concert

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LA TIMES — Maine’s first Somali police officer is on paid leave during an investigation after her arrest over the weekend in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Worcester police charged Zahra Munye Abu, of Portland, with several misdemeanors including assault and battery, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

Police say the 26-year-old caused a disturbance at a Ja Rule and Ashanti concert at the Palladium Nightclub. She was arrested Saturday night, and posted bail early Sunday.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck confirmed Abu’s arrest, but declined further comment.

Abu was born in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to Maine. She graduated from the University of Southern Maine and became a police officer in 2016. The Associated Press could not locate a phone number for her, and it’s unclear if she has a lawyer.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Diaspora

Portland police officer whose hiring made history is put on leave after arrest in Massachusetts

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PRESS HERALD — Zahra Munye Abu, the first Somali immigrant to serve on the city’s force, is charged in Worcester with five misdemeanors, including assault.

A 24-year-old Portland police officer has been charged with five misdemeanors, including assault and battery, after being arrested Saturday night at a concert venue in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Worcester police said Zahra Munye Abu, of Portland, is also facing charges of trespassing, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.

Abu caused a disturbance while attending a Ja Rule and Ashanti concert at the Palladium Nightclub on Main Street, said Worcester police Sgt. Kerry F. Hazelhurst.

“The nightclub was hosting several live musical acts,” Hazelhurst said in an email. “She was (given) several opportunities to leave and refused. Eventually she was placed under arrest.”

Worcester police would not provide more details about the incident, and members of Abu’s family declined to comment when contacted by phone at their home.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Abu has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending a review of the matter.

“The Portland Police Department was notified late Saturday night of the arrest of Police Officer Zahra Abu in Worcester, Massachusetts,” Sauschuck said in an email. “This issue will be dealt with as a personnel matter from this point forward, so I will have no further comment.”

Chris Besaw, the Palladium general manager, declined to comment about the arrest or what occurred before local police became involved.

Abu was bailed out of jail at 1 a.m. Sunday, Hazelhurst said. He did not know the bail amount. She is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in Worcester District Court.

Abu is a high-profile member of the Portland police force because she is the first member of Maine’s Somali immigrant community to become a police officer in Maine.

She was born to Somali parents in a Kenyan refugee camp and has lived in Portland since she was 2 years old. She graduated from Deering High School in Portland and studied criminal justice and women-and-gender issues at the University of Southern Maine.

If convicted, Abu faces a maximum penalty of up to 2½ years in a county jail on the assault and battery and the resisting arrest charges. Each of the other charges include less severe maximum penalties.

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