Why is Muslim Fashion and Modest Dressing the Story That Never Ends?

Why is Muslim Fashion and Modest Dressing the Story That Never Ends? April 1, 2016
Photo courtesy TED
Photo courtesy TED

By Michael Wolfe

Standing ovations at TED Talks are not that common. The last one I recall was a magician with a sword who, literally, showed his audience how to swallow fear.

Imagine then the collective surprise when Dahlia Mogahed, social science research wonk, mother of two, and a practicing Muslim walks on stage, poised, cheerfully dimpled, in a striking blue Muslim dress and head scarf, and smiling into the footlights asks a full house, “What do you see when you look at me? A woman of faith? An expert? Maybe even a sister. Or oppressed, brainwashed, a terrorist.”

Then try to imagine your amazement 15 minutes later when, against all odds, the whole crowd is on its feet and clapping.

Without fanfare, the personable Mogahed takes her audience on a solidly reasoned, thoughtful journey past the three not-so-subconscious stages of distrust, anger and fear that many Americans currently go through every time they see a woman in a headscarf. She explains how this happens, what it costs, and what it means—to the perceiver and the perceived, to our personal space and our public world, to democracy itself when fear takes over and labels win the day. She explains the stakes and she offers a choice and a challenge. No wonder the whole room jumped up to applaud.

Like a lot of people, I watched the talk on-line. I was at work, in MOST’s Story Bank office, just doing my job, reviewing media pieces related to Muslims and Islam. The moment the TED talk ended, I began scrolling through all the Style & Fashion articles I could find in our searchable archive. Why Fashion? For two reasons:

  1. Because the look of Muslim women is one of the most loaded social messages of our time.
  2. Because just now, when so much extra meaning is being placed on their appearance, Muslim women’s fashion has come into its own.

In reference to the first point, writer Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, who is based in the UK, had this to say (on Facebook) regarding the recent gaffe uttered by the Women’s Rights minister in France as well as the ruckus over the sale of burkinis at Marks and Spencer:

So the Women’s Rights minister in France has said that the burkini that Marks and Spencer has announced for sale in the UK is a form of ‘social control’, and that brands that sell such an item are ‘irresponsible’ and promoting women’s bodies ‘being locked up.’ Yet the irony is lost on her that removing choice from Muslim women (or any other woman) so she cannot choose how she dresses is itself a form of control. And when such views are challenged about the fact that Muslim women choose for themselves to dress in this way, the response is really the most insulting of all, which runs, yes, but they can’t really think for themselves, they are brainwashed. For a women’s rights minister to claim that any woman can’t think for herself and must be helped to know what’s good for her, is infantilisation at its height, and is the very attitude that feminists have been attempting to dismantle for centuries. Do I sound angry? I am. Women, including Muslim women, have huge issues to tackle together: domestic violence, sexual assault, employment and pay discrimination, the disproportionate effects of war and poverty and illiteracy. And we are worried about a swimsuit? And this is the only subject that comes up again and again? And no, this is not the ‘thin end of the wedge’, it is an issue that should be put down to women’s right to choose and the demands of the consumer market, and we should move on to actually delivering women’s rights not talking about a swimsuit. Seriously, a headscarf or a swimsuit is not the sole definition of a Muslim woman. Start seeing Muslim women as people, not just reducing us to what we wear.

Indeed, what Muslim women wear (or don’t wear) is a story or message that won’t go away, even though, as Janmohamed said, there are much more important issues to tackle.

In reference to the second point:

Exhibit A: Nabila Noor‘s library-size archive of YouTube videos, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook pages have made her a household name in Muslim social media. Noor’s YouTube channel overflows with advice on make up, room decors, foodie tips, party snacks, and gift ideas that flow from her bedroom and living room across the world. Move over, Martha Stewart. Recently, in addition to beauty tips, she has been offering election advice to a larger public, appearing in Iowa at the GOP debate and raising non-cosmetic questions.

Exhibit B: Amani Al-Khatahtbeh started a blog in high school called MuslimGirl.net, which today is a burgeoning social movement. First an online blog page from her New Jersey family’s home, then a Rutgers University student organization, then a registered website in Washington DC, MuslimGirl has moved with Amani, picking up a global network of editors and writers, taking on the theme of being young and female that spans the world.

Photo courtesy of Muslimgirl.net
Photo courtesy of Muslimgirl.net

Book and music reviews, women’s roles in politics and science and, more recently, articles on how wearing hijab has made women targets of violence in public. Amani has taken her news to CNN and represented her demographic at the UN Youth Assembly. Her goal is to show that Muslim women do talk back and to give them a stage where they can hear each other.

Creativity in Muslim women’s fashion and style flows beyond the virtual, giving solid shape to new looks around the world. The “Islamic World” is a large and potentially lucrative territory: 50 Muslim majority countries, 22% of the world’s population, and a “Diaspora” population outside them of over 300 million people. No surprise that Fortune magazine has already tagged Muslim women as the next major fashion market. The estimates of its worth are almost half-a-trillion dollars by 2020.

Who will design the clothes of Muslim women in the future? Donna Karan (DKNY) issued its first line almost two years ago. These days, it’s referred to as the Modesty Fashion Movement, inspired by a different set of cultural norms than Western style, including the notion that a woman’s visual appeal is not necessarily a function of how little she wears.

Muslim women will also create their own lines, and the companies to make and market them, if designers like Melanie el Turk CEO of Haute Hijab fashion house in Paris (and author of this article in Elle,) Nermin Demyati, the first female fashion designer in Gaza, and British-Japanese Muslim fashion designer Hana Tajima have anything to say. Tajima recently teamed up with Japanese retail giant Uniqlo to bring out a stunning line of clothes for British and U.S. markets.

Might you be curious to see how the American TV industry imagines Muslim FBI agents should dress? Consider this screen-grab of Lebanese-born actress Yasmine Al Massri, who portrays twin FBI agents Nimah and Raina Amin on ABC’s hit TV series, “Quantico.”

Screen grab from YouTube
Screen grab from YouTube

These are just a few of the many articles on Muslim women’s fashion you’ll find on the Story Bank. Check it out at www.mostresource.org.

Michael Wolfe is an American poet, author, and the President and Executive Producer of Unity Productions Foundation. A version of this article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

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