Full disclosure here; I’ve never exactly been a social butterfly. I’ve always preferred the company of my books, and the few friends I have made over the past decades. So when I decided to venture into the blogosphere it was both an attempt to find an outlet to deal with the various trials and tribulations of my life, and a way of tapping into the greater Muslim blogosphere in the hopes of finding a community. Since I started blogging I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many other Muslim bloggers. Amazing, funny, insightful, and inspiring individuals whose posts I look forward to. I’ve learned much in the process, and enjoy living vicariously through their travels and adventures. They’ve made me laugh, ponder, and even when I don’t agree with their opinions, I nonetheless appreciate their candour. Blogging has also allowed me to take stock of the plethora of blogs, websites, podcasts, and magazines made by and for Muslim women. As someone who very often rants about the importance of narratives, and the necessity for Muslimahs to not allow others to narrate their existence and co-opt their voices, learning of the existence of so many outlets made primarily by Muslim women was a welcomed change. However, within this cornucopia of content lies serious problematic trends that we need to address.
Help me out here ladies. Is there a reason why almost every blog, podcast, website, or magazine by and for Muslim women focuses so heavily on fashion? There is nothing inherently wrong with the topic, but when it represents the overwhelming majority of the content destined for Muslim women at the detriment of everything else, it becomes a problem. Do we not have any other concerns or interests? Do we have nothing else to contribute to our communities and Ummah at large? Have we become so narcissist that our conversations begin and end with looking good and finding Romeo? The overwhelming majority of these outlets produce a narrative about Muslim women that is simplistic at best, but mostly insidious in its erasure of our complex and diverse realities.
It is true that the modest fashion industry has allowed many female Muslim designers to make a name for themselves, and build their own enterprises by catering to a growing Muslim clientele eager to be fashionable while remaining true to their Muslim identity. I can only applaud these entrepreneurs and recognize the hard work and dedication needed in order to succeed. In fact, they have been so successful at it that the mainstream fashion industry is now taking notice of their success. The new hijab and abaya lines by fashion heavyweights like Dolce & Gabbana, as well as the presence of the hijab on the runways of the famous New York fashion week is a testimony to the popularity and the lucrative nature of the modest fashion industry. Some would even argue that the presence of the hijab in venues ranging from the cover page of Playboy to the runways of New York represents, in and of itself, a victory against Islamophobia. They perceive the visibility of the hijab in mainstream media and cultural outlets as an effective way of challenging the stereotypes that alienate Muslim women from the rest of society. After all, what better way to combat marginalization and alienation than to prove that we are not so different from everyone else?
The idea that through fashion islamic values of modesty can be promoted is probably one of the main ideological underpinnings of the modest fashion industry. The popularity of the Hijabi fashionista phenomenon, which is as much a byproduct of the modest fashion industry as it is its main driving force, rests on a similar idea; conveying modesty through fashion. But can an industry predicated mostly on ostentatious displays be a vehicle for modesty? The phenomenon of the modern apparel industry based on the mass production of clothing, and “the establishment of designers as arbiters of taste” originated in Europe. Since the 20th century fashion has turned into an essential staple of Western culture. Throughout the decades it has gained traction in much of the rest of the world. While the Muslim fashion industry perceives itself to be a distinct and separate entity, one could argue that it is more an offshoot of the Western fashion industry than an alternative. This becomes particularly relevant when one takes into account the ideals of beauty promoted by the modest fashion industry. Other than the presence of the hijab, the ideals of beauty that are promoted by this industry—from skin tones, to phenotypes, to body types—adhere to eurocentric ideals of beauty and female desirability.
The prevalent narrative in the modest fashion industry, while attempting to champion the ideals of modesty so dear to Islam, is inflicting a powerful blow to the hijab’s ability to empower women by liberating them from the vapid and hollow expectations of beauty thrusted upon them by society. Many Muslim women often explain their reasoning for wearing the hijab as a way of escaping the chauvinist and dehumanizing gaze of society by adhering to a different type of womanhood; one predicated not on arbitrary standards of outward beauty, but rather holistic ideals of personhood transcending the mere physical to embrace instead all that truly characterizes a believer: manners, compassion, piety, intelligence, and wisdom. Instead of promoting a different kind of womanhood and using Islam to advocate for the liberation of women from overtly sexualized femininity, the modest fashion industry reiterates the same expectations as the mainstream fashion industry when it comes to what makes a woman beautiful and desirable. The emphasis is once more put on outward physicality and artifices such as makeup and clothing.
In fact, I would argue that this is the reason why the hijab is so readily accepted in the world of fashion. Bereft of its own spiritual narrative the hijab becomes nothing more than a cultural signifier, much like a kilt, a sari, or a dashiki. In that context it is reduced to nothing more than an object of exoticism that exudes mystery and seduction. It harkens back to the age old Orientalist narrative—that has always fuelled the fantasies of Westerners—about scantily clad ladies submissively awaiting for the sexual favours of their husbands in their well-guarded harems. These images of beautiful hijabis gracing the pages of fashion magazines is more likely to foster pipe-dreams about forbidden fruits awaiting to be unveiled than to promote modesty or a distinct form of womanhood in Islam.
Granted one could say, upon taking a look at my moniker, that I am nothing more than a reclusive nerd hating on fashionable folks with actual relationship goals. I assure you however that my trepidations are not born of hatred or jealousy, but rather a desire to question the pitfalls of the current popular narrative shaping who and what a Muslim woman should be. We should applaud our sisters’ success and support them in their various endeavours. However, in Islam part of that support entails giving sincere advice to one another.
The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said: “Each of you is the mirror of his brother, so if he sees a fault in him he should wipe it away from him.” [Tirmidhi]
We cannot on one hand bemoan sexism and the hyper sexualization of female bodies in mainstream society, while at the same time reproducing the same patterns all over again in our own platforms. We cannot keep harping on about the liberating essence of the hijab, while at the same time stripping it of all that makes it a tool of liberation in the first place. We cannot profess our love and dedication to modesty, while taking part in the same process that imposes on women arbitrary standards emphasizing outward beauty. We cannot pretend to aspire to a different kind of womanhood predicated on ideals that transcend mere physical beauty, while at the same time reproducing a narrative that reduces women to nothing more than vain creatures existing solely to satisfy the male gaze. We cannot in the name of feminism promote women’s liberation but do it at the detriment of the very ethos of Islam.
Muslim women are as diverse as the Muslim Ummah itself. We come in many shapes and colours, and this diversity is part and parcel of our identity as Muslimahs. However, the current narrative championed by the modest fashion industry not only ignores this diversity, but also erases the complexity of our experiences. It gives credence to the erasure of anything deemed “imperfect”, it excludes those deemed too fat, too dark, too disabled, or too ugly. It embraces in more ways than one the mainstream narrative pertaining to Muslim woman which often vacillates between two extremes: the oppressed woman in need of liberation, and the Pinup girl in need of recognition. It is a narrative that alienates and disempowers the vast majority of us by stripping us of our humanity and complexity.
We are mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters. We are nurturers and warriors. We are ulemas, scientists, doctors, writers, teachers, engineers, artists, maids, architects, nurses, farmers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, activists, and so much more. We are the inheritors of 1400 years of history and struggle. The mothers of the believers (may Allah be pleased with them) and all subsequent generations of Muslimahs have laid down for us—through their hard work and example—a blueprint to follow in order to succeed in this world and in the hereafter. At a time when the status of women in Islam is often used to attack our religion; at a time when Muslim women are often the primary target of the virulent discourse of modern day Islamophobia; at a time when our communities and Ummah at large are struggling with massive political, economic, social, and spiritual challenges, we—Muslim women—simply cannot afford to remain silent and let ourselves be erased by a narrative that strip us of our true identity, and robs us of our potential. We have much to contribute to the world and our Ummah. More than ever, our talents, knowledge, experiences, ideas, courage, and strength are needed to help our beloved Ummah traverse this difficult moment.
So, let your light shine through Muslimahs by remaining steadfast in the path of your Lord.