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.

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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.

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27 thoughts on “Fashioning Muslim Identity: The Erasure Of The Modern Muslim Woman

  1. I happened to stumble across this well-written article. It was informative and i felt like it summarised the plight of the Muslim woman in today’s context. Jazakallah sister for writing this. Allah accept.

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  2. I belive all the comments above and the incredible post you’ve written have spoken all that I want to say. We’ve drifted away from the real meaning of “Hijab” and not just that, being a Hijabi had become more of a fashion trend than an act of worship.

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  3. Hijaab was meant to cover the beauty of the Muslim woman so to have all of these glamorous styles for wearing “hijaabs” is a contradiction in itself. Very strange subhaan Allah. It seems that some sisters are really begging for acceptance from the West. May Allah protect us, ameen. And the western media won’t hesitate promoting this idea of “hijaab” either but never will they portray proper hijaab in a positive light. Like you mentioned, the mothers of the believers have laid down for us a blueprint to follow, alhamdu lillah. May Allah guide us and keep us firm.

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  4. This is such a valuable and great post in regards to how we accept only certain aspects of a culture, religion, tradition, etc. I find it fascinating. If it is about fashion, we can talk about it, but if it is just about being a Muslim woman in America…we run and hide because it is different than the American dream…being a heterosexual, white, Christian male ….

    You are an inspiration for this post!

    Please check out my blog LADYHOOD
    https://aladyhoodjourney.wordpress.com/

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    1. Wa aleikum Salam sister Maryam. Please feel free to use the contact form on the blog to get in touch with me. There is a contact option in the menu on the right side of the main page. Don’t forget to add your email so I can respond to you. Jazak’Allah Khair.

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  5. Love this phrase: ‘the oppressed woman in need of liberation, and the Pinup girl in need of recognition.’ Could not agree more. That’s exactly how it is. I had a friend once who is a pretty girl MashaAllah, but she was increasingly worried about her body image as she has a built figure. And she would wear makeup and tightly fitted hijabi fashion. Once during a conversation she told me how she felt that no-one (brothers) would not consider her, that she ‘wasn’t pretty enough’.

    I’m suprised that Dolce & Gabbana have taken on the task to incorporate Muslim fashion trends into their own brand. Though I must admit I do not agree to this at all. I feel as though it’s just another way for them to place a higher price tag and sell them to Muslim customers. Some probably will like the inclusiveness of such a major brand.

    I remember when, here in Australia, we only had scarves and clothes that were tailored because they didn’t have dedicated Muslim clothing stores. One opened up and then now a few years later we have about over 20 stores available in different parts of Melbourne. I’ve heard Sydney also has a fair share.

    Fashion isn’t a bad thing until it becomes narcissistic and promotes the ego. Personally, I believe when one puts the hijab on for the first time you don’t know how to dress modestly, but gradually the more you wear it for the sake of Allah SWT it brings on a sense of haya and modesty.

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    1. You’re absolutely right about D&G, they are doing this because they want to tap into the lucrative market of the modest fashion industry. They couldn’t care less about what the hijab represents or what it means, to them it is about profit.

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  6. Jazak Allah khair for writing this sister. You have really hit the nail on the head. It’s not about hating on the sisters which love fashion but we are way more than that. Being a sister who wears niqab I find that I am being Marginalized because I don’t fit into the acceptable image of hijab fashion. I wish that sisters would realise that hijab is an act of worship, fashion is not.

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    1. Wa iyaki my dear sister. I understand that feeling of marginalization all too well. It is worst for sisters who like you wear the niqab, because too often such sisters are completely erased from the conversation. The hijab is indeed an act of worship and we should always be weary of not stripping it of it’s religious meaning. Thank you for commenting and taking the time to read my post.

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  7. Salaam! Thank you for such an interesting and insightful post! You said a lot of things that I have often been thinking, but in a much more coherent and elegant way =) It seems to be quite an “unpopular” opinion amongst my friends who all love following the hijabi fashion blogs, channels, etc. but like you said I don’t have any problem with Muslim women wanting to be modest and stylish too (we need Muslim women to represent in every niche!); I certainly do feel though like I cannot relate at all to most female Muslim figures in the mainstream for the same reasons I don’t relate to most other celebrities: they are all thin, have perfect skin, and wear way more makeup and certain clothes that I wouldn’t feel comfortable in at all. At any rate, I can’t wait to read more inshAllah; your posts are always so interesting and centre around things that are rarely discussed but really need to be brought up in the ummah!

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    1. Thank you so much for commenting sister. I’m glad you’ve found the subject interesting. Like you said the issue is not with sisters wanting to be stylish, but rather with the underlining narrative that is starting to emerge with the commercialization of the concept of modesty. The emphasis is being put on being attractive at the detriment of everything else. Thank you again for reading and commenting.

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  8. Haha! You wrote my article for me, Geeky! It’s a phenomena I like to call ‘hijab fetishization.’ My sister and I have chatted about this at length, the contradiction of a hijabi fashionista. Although I may act in a way some people may feel is unbecoming of a Muslim woman, my hijab is never a part of that conversation. I don’t even like the word hijabi, to be honest, because it again defines me by my headscarf. We need trailblazers like yourself just continuing to be your unapologetic self – that’s the only way we can change the current narrative, by adding to it!

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    1. Awww thank you so much Rafia. I love reading your comments, they are always so insightful.

      I think more of us “unconventional Muslim ladies” need to make our voices heard. That is the beauty of the Muslim experience. There is such diversity and complexity to it, that it is truly a shame it is not being showcased more often.

      Yay Muslim women!

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      1. You’re welcome! Your blogs are always (very nutritional) food for thought – not like my carb and fat-laden blog LOL.

        I think it’s easy to typecast and perhaps even easier to be typecasted. But I’ve always had an aversion to do things just because everyone else is doing it. I am hypocritical when it comes to social media, but I do have limits haha!

        I know our stories don’t make the headlines, but when I feel down I was like to remind myself of Gandalf’s words of wisdom to Frodo “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” 🙂

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      2. I love your posts Rafia, you have a way of making our lived experiences tangible and very human. There is a reason I gravitate toward people who have that quality. I’m info-dump girl, ask me about random stuff and I’ll most likely give you a mini lecture on it. But when it comes to conveying the intricacies of the human condition in a tangible way…well let’s just say I’ll probably have a seat and let someone else do it. I’m pretty sure I’m somewhat half-Vulcan like Mr. Spock. LOOOL.

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      1. Yeah, I just saw that CoverGirl has a new Muslim ambassador and I am going to refrain from commenting on all the celebratory posts I’m seeing on FB.

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