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