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#HHWT Explorers: Meet The Malaysian Scientist Designing Hijabs For The British Police


Shasha Dania •  Jun 11, 2019


It’s easier nowadays for Muslim women to find a store (whether physical or online) selling modest wear and headgear tailored to their every need, giving them more freedom of choice in deciding their everyday looks. But there are still some obstacles to allowing Muslim women to live out their day-to-day lives without forgoing their faith. Malaysian Dr Elies Alias would know - she not only used her PhD in Biomaterial and Biomedical Engineering to found a company dedicated to providing Muslim women with a convenient yet fashionable hijab range, but she’s even been working with the British police force to create hijabs for their Muslim servicewomen! ? We talked to her about travel, entrepreneurship, and how she’s changing the day-to-day lives of everyday Muslim women one hijab at a time.
Could you give us a quick introduction to your journey so far, and to Instant Hijab UK?
Credit: @instanthijabsuk on Instagram
We are a small start-up company, beginning just over a year ago. We have designed our hijabs based on practicality, safety, simplicity, and convenience whilst preserving the modesty. Apart from everyday hijabs, we also have luxury hijabs (pure silk from Liberty of London) and our ever so popular sports hijab (MoreSlim). Recently, our company was shortlisted as a finalist at the Islam Channel Business award for start-up business of the year, a prestigious ceremony held in London.
We were really impressed to learn that you earned a doctorate in Biomaterial and Biomedical Engineering - what was the journey towards your degree like, and was the choice of this field a deliberate one?
The journey to the PhD was a long one. I initially studied medicine in London. I switched into Mechanical Engineering. I had children then. I did MSc. in Medical Engineering at the University of Liverpool, at the time I was the only female student, the only one with small children but I was also the only one who passed with distinctions. I was offered a full sponsorship by the UK government and several small companies to pursue my doctorate in Biomaterial and Biomedical Engineering. I had another baby during my PhD study but I managed to finish on time. My project won an award by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), London.
To have a family i.e. being a mother, wife and also a student has its own challenges but it makes you superb at managing your time. The sacrifice was immense. But this is another story, I might bore you with the details.
How do you put your doctorate to work in the designing process? What are some of the needs or situations Muslim women might face today that you keep in mind?
I am from an educational background with industrial research. I used to work as a researcher with universities, medical professionals and companies, developing surgical instruments, medical device, biomaterials and techniques to be used in surgeries. As a scientist, I look into problems objectively and explore solutions. I have comfortably worked alongside people from various background and managed to understand their needs. I have led much research combining agencies from universities, surgeons, companies, and governmental award/grant bodies. Many of my research have now translated into clinical trials. I taught students, have delivered international presentations and represented my work for grants, research or in competitions.
So, when I had my ‘career break’, I vowed to myself that I wanted to give something back to my Muslim sisters. When I ‘see’ something, I have always thought of how to improve it. Or sometimes I would have sketches of ideas. I use my previous experience in research to develop a product from prototype until its full production and that was how MoreSlim was first created. I think what Muslim women need is practicality but at the same time upholding the quality. What we have used so far were mainly based on looks but limited in research and proper product qualities. Islam taught us to have ‘ihsan’, the best that we can in every aspect of our life and so we should bring this into our way of working too.
Entrepreneurship is truly an amazing venture, particularly female entrepreneurship as a Sunnah practice. What made you decide to take a break from being a scientist and set up Instant Hijab UK?
I was tired actually. I have studied and worked most of my life. At its peak, I was working, a full-time mum and also became the headmistress of a Malaysian Community school in Manchester (I’ve managed to save this school from closing down, bringing the number from 20 to 120), this was something that I was really proud of. But being too busy I needed a break so that I can have a proper focus on my family again.
Credit: @instanthijabsuk on Instagram
Being in business is one of my many ‘tick’ in my bucket list (you will have one when you get older like me..). I love sewing, playing on my sewing machine gives me lots of time to experiment with designs. I have made my own hijabs from many years ago, so selling my self-made hijab will only come naturally when I was thinking of having a business. In business, you also have the chance of helping others. There have been so many instances when financial gain is not much more important than being kind and generous.
What obstacles did you face as you set up Instant Hijab (emotionally, spiritually, etc.), and how did you overcome them?
I felt lonely when I started the journey, and I still do. Although I had lots of experience in research, business is something that I know very little about. I felt like jumping into a deep ocean and everything has been a very steep learning curve for me. Once, my husband did say, he thought that by having a career break from my usual work I should be ‘stress-free’ but it wasn’t the case. As I’m working from home, people always thought that I’m not working. Oh, I forgot to tell you that I also have another part-time job managing websites for several surgeries of the NHS (health services) also home-based.
Credit: @instanthijabsuk on Instagram
But business is sunnah, and I have always wanted to emulate Sayyidatina Khadijah, in her entrepreneurship, in her mannerism, in her patience, in her humbleness and in her honour, amongst other things. So whatever obstacles that I faced, it is a form of worship. Like many other aspects of worship, you perform it to your best and to be patient.
How did you go from running Instant Hijab to designing hijabs for the British police force? What were the events leading up to this massive change, and what challenges did you face along the way?
Credit: @instanthijabsuk on Instagram
It was the MoreSlim sports hijab. It is a technical fabric with certifications (recognized by the ISO, EN and AATCC for its antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiperspirant, breathable, lightweight, stretchy, and UV-protection properties) so it wasn’t difficult to convince them of its performance. I think you might have read somewhere that I saw them during an event that I was also involved in. This has lead to engaging with them, and from there I have designed a special edition of MoreSlim to be used for the policewomen front-liners.
We know that you migrated from Malaysia to the UK - how different is the Muslim community, or life in general, in these 2 countries?
This is a very difficult question. Most of my life when I was in Malaysia was when I was still a child. I have lived in the UK most of my adult life. So it was difficult to compare (a short trip/vacation in Malaysia is never the same as living there). What I miss the most about Malaysia are families and relatives. You could feel very lonely overseas especially if you live away from the Malaysian communities. The most noticeable differences that you would find are in terms of the common sense, general jokes and mannerism.
Could you give us some recommendations for your favourite halal restaurant or eatery in London/Manchester? Do you have any tips for our readers who might be visiting the UK soon?
Credit: @queenofsabba on Instagram
Our favourite Malay restaurant is Melur London (truly authentic Malay dishes). Our favourite Italian is Carluccio’s (the seafood was exquisite) they have many branches in the UK. As for halal, there are plenty in the UK. In Manchester alone, there is a stretch of street in Rusholme called the ‘curry-mile’, bustle with halal restaurants from Indian, Middle-Eastern, Mediterranean to the far east. Al-Jazeera is popular amongst Malaysian but our current favourite is an Afghan restaurant called Afghan Chopan in Bolton.
We know you love travelling a lot. Where have you been to and which country or city is your favourite?
Apart from places in Malaysia and in the UK (and Mecca of course), we have mainly been to the European countries and North Africa. Amongst the memorable ones are the Atlas mountains in Morocco (Read more about Dr Elies' Morocco travels here and here). We spent the weekend at a Wad, in the middle of nowhere in Berbers’ tent away from modern technologies. They’ve grown their own vegetables and raised their own flocks and we had the best meal ever. As it was hot during the night, we decided to sleep underneath the stars. We travel on camelbacks to visit gardens in the middle of the arid desert. This was when the kids were still small, in 2012.
Another memorable place is the salt lake in Tunisia. The vast land of nothingness around you makes you feel like you are in a dream. (Read more about Dr Elies' Tunisia travels here)
I'm sorry but I have to put another place in, it was Iceland. The land geography was magical and seeing the northern lights in the middle of the night (it was the end of summer where it was nearly impossible to see). We are visiting Cyprus next and will let you know how we get on.
What’s the one thing you always need with you during a trip?
The family. Most of the fun lies with them. It was the journey with them is the most fun, finding out places and experience culture together is the best education.
Do you have any advice or words you’d like to share with other Muslim women and Muslim travellers out there?
I know that some people are very picky about food and they need to have their own food with them during travels. We feel that food is part of the culture, and when you travel you should try to experience the local culture. Most things are halal anyway (vegetarian, seafood) and you can ask to leave out alcohol if they do have in the cooking. You can always ask or google if unsure.
Islam is not difficult at all. There are many ways to ease your travels. Your hijabs, your solah, your manners are part of you. The more you travel, the more you can appreciate the beauty of His creations. You cant always expect people to be tolerable with you without you tolerating others. Understanding, kindness and smiles go a long way. You can find out more about Instant Hijab UK on their Instagram.