Coverage of “Fashionable” Muslim Women Cramps Our Style

While the front pages of newspapers feature Muslim women in flowing black abayas, burqas, and chadors, the often thrown-aside life and style sections are offering a very different picture of Muslim women: stylish! “Hijabistas,” trendy up-and-coming Muslim designers (predominantly from the U.K.), and fashion-forward hijabis are appearing on the covers of fashion and entertainment sections in newspapers across the world.

Designer Hana Tajima (right) and model. Image via Susannah Ireland for The Independent.

These “hijabistas” are wearing and designing clothes to reflect “Western fashion” reconciled with a “Muslim dress code,” according to British media outlets BBC and The Independent.

Following this trend of covering “hijabistas,” the Los Angeles Times recently ran a piece on the trend of stylish, hijab-friendly clothing worn by American Muslim women, and the recent emergence of blogs, magazines, and online boutiques that cater to fashion-forward American Muslim women. The article calls on Sama Wareh, a stylish Muslim woman; Tayyibah Taylor, editor in chief of Azizah Magazine; and Jokima Hamidullah, founder of We Love Hijab, to explain this fascination with Muslim fashion that has now captured the attention of newspapers.

Tayyibah explains, “In America, we have a microcosm of the Muslim world. There are 80 different ethnicities. It’s a cultural and spiritual buffet table. American Muslims pick and choose and create their own. Establishing hijab, as both fashion and spiritual, is part of that as well. These young bloggers and the new magazines are part of the building of a cultural architecture, and what is being created is distinctly Muslim American.”

Is this why newspapers seem to be obsessed with reporting on hijab fashion: to contribute to the creation of a distinct Muslim American—or, in the case of BBC and The Independent, a distinct British Muslim identity? While I am glad to see a focus on hijab that is not as “othering” as the typically marginalizing coverage, this seemingly benign widespread news trend still echoes previous discourse surrounding the hijab. The similarities are subtle, but nonetheless they are present.

Sama Wareh. Image via Christina House / For The Time.

Each article assumes that “Western” fashion or concepts are, at the least, very difficult to reconcile with Islamic standards. The articles take on an astonished tone as they explain “just how” these Muslim women are reconciling their different identities. The Los Angeles Times article even points out to readers that Sama’s “…personal sense of style is so unique that she’s been asked by non-Muslims if what she’s wearing ‘is allowed.’”

These fashionable women are presented as liberated, autonomous, and modern Muslim women of the “Western world.” A dichotomy is created between these stylish ladies and the “un-modernized” Muslim women who wear niqabs or drab-colored clothing often compared to tents or shrouds.

The “hijabista” coverage is located within an existing discourse about the “veil” that posits this piece of fabric an affirmation or rejection of Islamic principles, instead of being taken as an individual’s expression of her personal choice. For example, the BBC poses the contextualized question, “But doesn’t the showy nature of fashion contradict the essence of Hijab?” This question is similar to the question of whether personal style is “allowed.”

There’s also the issue of Western-ness (which is presented in conjunction with modernity). The Independent touts “hijabistas” in the U.K. as those whose presence reflects the shift of British Muslims toward “the mainstream” and “forging their own indigenous identity.” Why is it that the presence of Muslim women creating hijab-friendly fashion seen as a movement toward the “mainstream” or “forging their own indigenous identity,” while a British Muslim woman’s decision to wear the niqab (face veil) seen as a security risk, a rise in fundamentalism, or a blow to British values?

This sort of ostensibly well-intended coverage seems to be one step forward for Muslim women and two steps back. Media outlets and newspapers ensure that we are merely speaking and acting from within an existing discourse, so that something benign and lighthearted like fashion becomes a symbol of something much larger.

For now, I will stick to media outlets created by Muslim women to follow the trend on hijab-friendly fashion. These women can speak from a new, unoccupied space, where questions are not riddled with assumptions and answers aren’t affirmations.

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