Against All Odds: Muslim Fashion Designers on the Politics of Clothing

Although Muslim women are often portrayed in the media as wearing nothing but black abbayas, black hijabs and, often times, burkas and niqabs, Muslim women are claiming a place within the fashion industry. On one hand, some Muslim women have become visible as models; on the other, some are working to change things for those looking for stylish clothes that meet their standards for modesty. Nonetheless, this does not come without challenges.

Hind Sahli and Hanaa Ben Abdesslem. Image via The Daily Beast

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the after-effects of Islamophobia around the Western world, we tend to see particular ideas on what Muslim women “look like” or what they should be doing (which usually has nothing to do with fashion).

However, Muslim women have become an important fashion market. A number of well-known fashion houses have attempted to appeal to them through the commercialization of “modest” pieces of clothing and head scarves, but to what degree this has been successful is questionable. Yet, Muslim women soon transcended their role as pure consumers to become the leading figures of the industry.

Much of the Western media was first shocked when Rima Fakih won the Miss USA title. Then, Hindi Sahli and Hanaa Ben Abdesslem came along to challenge Western stereotypes about Arab and Muslim women. Having Muslim and Arab models in the West is often described as a Western initiative that has allowed for the “globalization” of the industry with personalities like Kyle Hagler expressing that “We have a responsibility in the fashion community to reflect global beauty, to reflect the new economies and reflect their financial strengths,” and “I think we all became socially aware.”

However, many of these women have turned to modeling and fashion as a way to counter Islamophobia and the common images of Muslim women as silent observers that permeate the media.

Amina Al-Jassim. Image via Arab News

While some conservative Muslims may not be thrilled by these developments, it is often their assumption – that under mainstream standards, women should not attract attention – that is used to question the legitimacy of Muslim women in the fashion industry. Yet, Muslim women have also turned to fashion as a way to accommodate religious needs.

One of the first leading women in the design industry was Amina Al-Jassim a Saudi fashion designer, who has become an iconic figure for Muslim fashion in the Middle East. Al-Jassim has had a great success not only in the Gulf, but also in the West. Nonetheless, she also has to deal with the political realities of the fashion industry in Saudi Arabia, which comes with accessibility challenges for women.

Even so, the experience provided by these women has allowed for a further development of the Muslim fashion industry, which is becoming increasingly represented by women. Despite what we might have expected given the male-dominated Western fashion industry, Muslim fashion is well represented by strong female designers who want to appeal both to Muslim and non-Muslim women.

Among these designers Nailah Lymus has made it to the headlines this week, despite questions by reporters on whether her designs could be worn by Muslim women or not. Her own attire seemed to surprise many in the media, who were puzzled by Lymus’ hijab and long sleeves. Margot Adler describes Lymus as “a devout Muslim” “[whose] dresses will surprise you” and later writes:

Nailah Lymus. Image via The Local

“But when you see Lymus’ clothes on the models, you realize no modest Muslim woman could wear most of them.”

Lymus, like Al-Jassim, has dealt with the political difficulties of being a designer, but in a different way. Lymus’ designs, she explains, attempt to counter the idea that Muslim women homogenously dress in certain ways, and calls women to “Islamify” clothes.

This is often expressed by other voices within the industry including Hana Tajima-Simpson and Sarah Elenany, who stated fashion lines to satisfy the needs of practicing Muslim women while appealing to a broader audience.

The common idea that Muslim women’s clothing is monolithic is being contested through the participation of Muslim women in the fashion industry. This is often a challenging fact for  much of the media coverage on Muslim women, which emphasizes the intimidating aspect and “anti-socialness” of Muslim women’s attires to make a point about Islamism and conservativism. It also challenges the idea that mainstream fashion brand names can define and satisfy the needs of the female Muslim population.

Perhaps it is time for Muslim women in the fashion industry to bring their voice and their ideas to an industry that remains very male- and Western-dominated.

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  • Yasmin

    Thank you for this very fascinating post!

  • Nadia

    If I only ever bought clothes that a “modest Muslim woman” would wear, I would not have any, because Zara and Next don’t really cater to a modest crowd. You buy what looks nice and like Naila says, “Islamify it” to make it something that you would be comfortable wearing. I think that’s what makes a hijabi woman look different from the crowd. Sometimes you’ll see a bunch of girls and they all look pretty much the same: t-shirts, skinny jeans, flip-flops. But hijabis have to be a bit more creative with their outfits and so you get all kinds of styles. It’s empowering because it gives you a chance to do something unique instead of just doing what everyone else is doing.

  • Laura

    I love this article and this website. I am a Buddhist American,learning about Muslim women for my next theatrical performance, which I m now creating. My intention is NOT to expoit and make fun of the culture and relieon, but to open it for white American understanding.

    So I have a question relative to “Islamifying” clothing. I read that the most traditional Islamic scripture is against changing the body in any way (such as tweezing eyebrows). How do women who wear hijab- a very traditional garment, justify both eyebrow tweezing nd the tradional hijab?

    How do clothes become “Islamified” and remain modest?

    I ask respectfully with love and curiosity for culture. Thank you for your thoughts!!
    Laura (Washington, DC)

  • Nadia

    Hi Laura,

    Some scholars have said that women who feel that their eyebrows are excessively bushy to the point where they feel it detracts from their appearance may tweeze the excess hair. Some women tweeze beyond that or tweeze even if their eyebrows are naturally thin, but that’s their individual decision.

    For me personally, when I “Islamify” clothing, it usually involves adding something to a piece or wearing it in a different way. For example, if I buy a piece that’s meant to be a short dress, I’ll wear it as a top, and usually I’ll have to wear something under or over it to cover my arms. Sometimes I’ll buy clothes that are a size bigger so that they are loose. A friend of mine buys skinny jeans in sizes two or three times larger so she can wear them.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Thanks for your comments Nadia and Laura!
    Laura, “islamifying” clothing is something that Muslim women may or may not do. In addition, there are a variety of ways to do it (if one chooses to do so). Issues on what is allowed or not is more a theological issue (outside the scope of this piece) and there are different opinions about it. However, when it comes to recent fashion developments “islamifying” clothing sometimes include adding hijab, a long sleeve top or something longer. While some designers are building on the so-called traditional Muslim clothes (that tend to be more culture-specific) like abbayas, hijabs and niqabs, some others try to find modest ways to wear European or North American clothes.
    This is up to each designer and each sister that wears the clothes.

  • Sobia

    I have to admit I’ve always had issues with the whole idea of “Islamic fashion.” What exactly is Islamic fashion? Hijab, niqab and abbaya are Middle Eastern. In South Asia these articles of clothing have been imported very recently from the Middle East through the Arabization of the Muslims in this region. Muslim women in this region wear shalwar kameezes and saris. Why are they not “Islamic fashion”? Those who do cover their hair with things like the dupatta do so because of culture more than religion, as you see Hindu and Sikh women do the same thing.

  • Annarose

    “While some conservative Muslims may not be thrilled by these developments, it is often their assumption – that under mainstream standards, women should not attract attention – that is used to question the legitimacy of Muslim women in the fashion industry.”

    Isn’t this a bit simplistic? What about people who are opposed to the fashion industry on ethical grounds- because the intense objectification and sexualisation of young women, to the point that how we look rather than what we say or think or do can come to be seen as our raison d’etre?
    How about those who think that a Qu’ran which calls for an egalitarian society with the emphasis on the values of charity and modesty (as a way of life as well as a way of dressing) seems to clash with spending thousands of dollars on clothes- as per ‘high fashion’- while others on this earth are without food?
    I like wearing nice, pretty clothes. As a western Muslim, my clothes are indeed an islamified version of exactly what I used to wear. But I am still very opposed to the “fashion industry” and all of the effect that industry has on society. Fashion should be a diversion, in my view, not a universe of it’s own. And I don’t feel that you should be sweeping of all people who aren’t thrilled that Muslim- or any- women are competing or working in fields in which their looks are everything into one vaguely insulting category.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hi Sobia! I think you raise very important points about what is defined as Muslim fashion. The first thing is that probably this new niche of fashion has been strongly defined by Westerners. This may be due to the rise of Muslim women that can acquire “high end fashion.” On the other, Muslim designers itself tend to define it on one or more of the following grounds:
    -garments are meant to comply (depending to each individual’s definition) to Islamic standards.
    -they appeal mainly, but not only, to Muslim women.
    -They are designed and often produced by Muslim people.
    -they challenge mainstream Western fashion statements.

    These clothes do not necessarily have to do with aabayas, hijabs and niqabs. This is exactly what the media identifies as “Muslim clothing” when we know that the Muslim world is way more diverse than this. I that something to keep in mind is how designers and buyers define their fashion. Lymus, for example, was criticized for designing things that are not “islamic” according to the media’s standards. However, for her the designs can be “islamified.”

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hi Annarose! Thanks for your comment. I apologize if that statement seemed simplistic. Of course there are all kinds of reasons to reject and oppose the fashion industry. However, if you search through the common reasons that come up in more conservative types of media and responses you will find out that the issue of women attracting attention is depicted as the most prevalent reason to oppose fashion. In addition, we need to recognize that “fashion” does not necessarily mean sexually-objectifying-expensive-clothes. To some degree Muslim designers have challenge this type of fashion and have attempted to offer women “fashionable” clothes that are affordable and comply with their religious preferences. The designers featured in this article are not high-end powerful magnates (yet) that try to sell women particular images that they should consume. To some of them it is quite the opposite. Few of these designers explain in their own bios that they didn’t find clothes that fitted properly, didn’t find affordable pretty clothing or were just bothered by having a bunch of Western men telling them what to wear.
    I do not necessarily think that Muslim women’s engagement in the fashion industry is a problem, and I definitely do not think that the issue of women “attracting attention” is the strongest criticism. I think this is a personal issue on whether or not you agree with that particular interpretation.
    I take issue with the whole issue of having Western male designers objectifying women in a way that they tell us what we need, how to look like and what to wear. Yet, I also take issue with the few conservative Muslim voices that tell us that we can or cannot wear something because we, as symbols of the religion, should not attract attention. I think that this are very personal things and having few Muslim women around offering alternatives is a positive thing.