Is H&M’s first Muslim model a positive move into the mainstream?

This post was written by guest contributor Shereen Malherbe (@malherbegirl).

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Mariah Idrissi is the first female Muslim model to feature in an H&M advertisement. The advert describes her look as ‘chic’ and Mariah definitely looks chic. Most are applauding this diverse and inclusive step from the world’s second largest retailer for representing Muslim women in the fashion world. The fashion industry is changing…or is it?

Muslim women have their own views and as the global Muslim population is the second-largest in the world, there will never be a formulaic response to what one Muslim woman wants. Our choices will depend on us individually and include the country we live in, our work and the primary reason some of us cover which is because of our faith, a highly private and personal affair despite the wearing of a headscarf turning it into a public one. Now when I return home to the UK, I am donning the ‘newest’ piece of kit which is the headscarf. It invites strangers to ask me all sorts of personal questions whilst others assume my new fashion taste is a throwback to the classic image of Audrey Hepburn. I, however, do not feel that stylish in my awkward ensembles that my teenage sisters have no qualms in telling me aren’t fashionable in the slightest. The new ‘me’ gasps in horror as I fold their handkerchief-sized pieces of clothing, a lot marketed and sold to them via the very same retailer.

The fashion industry needs to be more accommodating and change its representation of women. The female Muslim image in the media should be representative and extend to all parts of the consumerist market. Pick up a mainstream book, watch a Hollywood movie or flick through a glossy mag and I’m left wondering where is our contribution to society in these narratives? Often our viewpoint is given by those outside of the group and associated with negative connotations or images of oppression. The spending power of young Muslim women is beginning to start a trickle of representation, but we aren’t anywhere near mainstream markets for fashion, books or films. I once had a literary agent tell me that my novel would not fit into women’s fiction because my ‘chick-lit character jars with the Palestinian background’. Unsurprisingly, my Palestinian cousins and friends disagree. Why would they not experience the same feelings as girls in the West because of where they live? And why is a Muslim girl’s perspective of the world not considered important enough to be represented? It seems this observation is reflected by Ogilvy Noor’s Vice President (and one of the most influential Muslims in Britain) Shelina Janmohamed, says “There is so much in the news and political discussions about Muslims that brands understandably feel a bit nervous about reaching out to Muslim audiences.”

Why do these industry gatekeepers assume that people would rather be fed on a diet of stereotypes? And why aren’t realistic promotions of female Muslims celebrated and included in the mainstream? We are mainstream. We can challenge the status quo by demanding and buying alternatives. If they aren’t out there yet, create it, make it and support others that do so. Don’t feel pressured to fit in to what society portrays as the norm because it alienates large sections of our diverse society. Demand more representation, empower yourselves with your individual voice and consider where to spend your hard earned money. Do question the manipulative consumer giants who have started to see dollar signs appear on our headscarves.

Friday Links

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Not Between Her and Allah: Hijab-shaming in Malaysia

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Hajar (centre) surrounded by friends at her school. Source

Hijab-shaming is a favourite activity for some Muslims, both on-and offline. In fact, just last month I attended a religious class where the teacher spent a good half hour doing just that (I had to stop going for my mental health).

While meeting up with a girlfriend last week, she regaled me with the details of a religious class where the female teacher showed examples of “improper hijab” from a selection of hijabi Instagram users – young women who were obviously oblivious to the use of their photos for such educational purposes.

Social media gives a degree of anonymous bravado that makes it easier than ever to degrade and shame Muslim women for not wearing the hijab – the sixth pillar of Islam. (Oh wait, it isn’t? Funny, it sometimes does seem like it is…)

Last week, Bank Negara Malaysia (the central bank, or BNM) awarded a handful of prestigious scholarships to underprivileged students from around the country. 18-year-old Nur Hajar Asyiqin Abdul Zubir was one of the four to receive the award, after several rigorous rounds of assessment.

Currently studying for her ‘A’ Levels in Negeri Sembilan state, she dreams of studying chemistry at Oxford University in the UK – a “golden opportunity” that this scholarship will be able to fund without worrying her parents, who work as meat suppliers. The youngest of five children in the family, Hajar had scored 9 A+s in her secondary school examinations last year and learned about the scholarship through a motivational programme for underprivileged students in the country.

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Malaysia is a multiethnic country, where the indigenous Malays form the majority alongside Chinese and Indian minorities. Instead of pride in her excellent academic results, several Malay men on Facebook chose to criticise the fact that Hajar does not wear a tudung, or hijab.

One man said it was a “pity the aurat is not covered” and that “her father bears the sins”. Another man similarly qualified his congratulatory message with a snarky proclamation that “Allah hates His servants who do not cover” and dismissed the role of Hajar’s own intellectual efforts with the remark “we succeed not because we are clever”. Yet another man even suggested that the hijab should be a requirement for a scholarship awarded for academic excellence.

While one website described this online activity as “chiding”, I disagree: shaming is more accurate. It’s easy to shame Hajar because she is a young girl from a poor family, with no social standing. But it looks like women with a higher status in society are still not exempt. Case in point: a princess from another Malaysian state.

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Tunku Tun Aminah. Source

Tunku Tun Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah was recently the target of negative comments on photos posted on Instagram by herself and her brother, Tunku Idris, which shows her without a tudung – her habitual look.

The only daughter among the six children of the Johor sultan and his wife, the fashionable 28-year-old still keeps an Instagram “fashion diary” (@ttaootd), which is heavily monitored for negative comments.

While her brother claims that Tunku Aminah had shut down her Instagram account much earlier and for reasons unrelated to the comments on her lack of hijab, he admits that such comments do “tick [him] off.”

He defends his sister by posting several photos and comments on his account on not being judgemental of how others look. He even vouched for what he knows of his sister’s spirituality, like praying and covering her hair at religious events: “Is that not good enough? Isn’t it between her and Allah?”

It’s such a simple – almost rhetorical – question, yet it is one that is difficult for many of us to answer. These people are shaming Hajar and Tunku for not fitting into their narrow ideas of what it means to be an ideal (Malay) Muslim woman. While deriding others is an attempt of the actor to give himself moral or psychological power, it only reveals his own internal crisis of masculinity.

Friday Links

In Montreal, teenagers knocked a pregnant Mulslim woman to the ground by grabbing her hijab. Some have linked the attack to anti-Muslim bigotry fuelled by the federal debate over the place of the niqab in Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

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H&M: Where Pseudo-Sustainability Meets Diversity Porn. More on H&M’s hijabi model. 

Susan Carland argues that Femen’s protests shut down debate, as the only voices amplified are the protesters and the misogynists: “one can only be either a Muslim who loves misogyny as a religious duty, or an orientalist feminist who hates Islam.”

Sherali Tareen interviews Debra Majeed about her new book  Polygyny: What it Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands

Another article on someone wearing hijab for a day to see what it’s like. 

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Mahroh Jahangiri  writes about the global network of cities instituting race and religion-based surveillance under the banner of “Countering Violent Extremism” and the plans to implement the program in NYC  as “criminalizing Muslim communities”

Friday Links

A year after she was elected as the Female Muslim MP in Malawi parliament, Aisha Mambo has vowed to use her new role to advocate for a larger representation of Muslim women in the country.

Leading Muslim Organization Campaigns for Women-Friendly Mosques, calling on mosques across the country to be more inclusive of women.

Nearly all women in Egypt, whose population is 90% Muslim, wear a veil. So it would seem foolish for any Egyptian business to exclude covered women. Yet that is exactly what some fancy restaurants, pools and beach resorts are doing.

A leading US Muslim advocacy group has filed a complaint over the Columbus Police Division’s refusal to allow women officers to wear hijab, calling the decision a discriminatory one.

A Muslim student has been banned from entering her high school class in the Swiss canton of Bern and was sent to home for donning the Islamic headscarf or hijab.

Life as a Muslim girl isn’t always easy. Sometimes you’ve got to balance your faith with fashion, work, and a zillion other things. Ikhlas of Metro lists 10 of them.

Several Muslim women took to Whisper, an app that allows people to secretly admit to things they’d never dare say in public, to reveal their true feelings about wearing hijab and the negative attention they receive.

A top Malaysian pop singer officially proclaimed her conversion to Islam during a press conference, confirming rumors about embracing Islam after being spotted wearing hijab, according to media reports.

Does Hijab become an obstacle for a Muslim woman to express herself through fashion? Ask Saudi designer Nabila Nazer and she will whip out some of the trendiest and coolest looks for a modest, modern woman.

Influential Emirati women celebrate Emirati Women’s Day. Thursday marks the occasion of the first Emirati Women’s Day, celebrating the achievements of Emirati women and their contributions to the growth of the nation.

 

Friday Links

Muslim women in Morocco are demanding a female-only beach so they can enjoy the summer weather without having to worry about keeping their bodies covered.

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Officials have told the BBC that contrary to recent announcements, the number of Britons emigrating to Syria to live under Islamic State (IS) rule peaked two years ago. However, the proportion of women among those joining the extremist group has risen dramatically.

A new wave of Muslim female bloggers is tackling issues traditionally considered taboo by their communities, and trying to shatter stereotypes around their culture.

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Young Muslim girls from West Bengal are being sold to men looking for brides in Haryana for as little as Rs50,000 to Rs100,000.

Egypt has banned children from wearing hijabs to primary school. Speaking in an interview, the Minister said that Islam did not require girls to wear the hijab until they reach puberty and so there was no need for them to wear the veil in primary school.

In yet another case of Islamophobia, a Muslim woman has been denied service in a Michigan store after she refused to take off her Islamic hijab.

 

 

Friday Links

A recent study has shown the number of Saudi women who do not marry young has shot up to four million, more than double the number five years ago, because apparently Saudi women prioritize employment and education over early marriage.

A reader of The Arab American News, who had stopped at a traffic light with the Muslim biker, sent a photo to the newspaper. It was taken at an angle that did not reveal the woman’s identity, but still captured the fact that she wore a hijab. The photo stirred some debate.

Riad Azzam writes about the recent judgement of the Supreme Court of India rejecting a petition against a CBSE directive that had banned the wearing of veil or any other headgear during the AIPMT exam in India.

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Lila Igram, founder of Connecther.org, writes about “Muslim Women Superheros” and what they mean to her.

Acknowledging their efforts to empower Muslim women in Scotland, a group of women councillors have been nominated to receive the Scottish Health Award for their work to help vulnerable women.

Abrar Shahin, a Muslim student of the 2015 batch of Clifton High School in Clifton, New Jersey said Hijab is her choice, and also her style, after winning the ‘best dressed’ award this spring.

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