Fashion Challenges Stereotypes of Muslim WomenFashion-conscious Muslim women have created a platform on blogs and social media, sharing fashion- and beauty tips amongst themselves. However, these activities are not merely about designer headscarves and clothes. Fashion has become the medium through which fashion-conscious bloggers challenge stereotypes of Muslim women. The author of this article examines Muslim fashion and its agendas in her master’s dissertation, entitled ‘Fashion with Faith – Re-Imagining the Veil. How Modest Fashion in Turkey is Changing the Narrative of Muslim Women’.
We are constantly hearing stories about her, reading, and speaking about her. Much has been written on The Muslim woman, the theme is forever debated – not least concerning the issue of the Muslim headscarf, which has over the years become a highly politicised piece of fabric. The headscarf has been subjected to critique by many Westerners for being fundamentally at odds with modernity and Western values, positing the Muslim woman as backward and oppressed.
However, the noticeable surge in fashion-conscious Muslim women demonstrates how Muslim women – not unlike many other women – live in consumerist societies and concern themselves with beauty and aesthetics, thereby challenging stereotypes.
When, a while ago, H&M launched an advertising campaign featuring a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf as their front-page model it was a source of much debate in the media, including various Danish newspapers. The Muslim model was interesting, modern, and progressive and thus celebrated for her fashion choices.
Many readers were probably unaware of how fashion-conscious Muslim women were already engaged with fashion through a sub-culture of blogs and social media, which offer a platform managed by the individual Muslim woman.
The expansion of the bloggers’ universe on social media has transposed Muslim women to a new forum, using terms of reference such as hijabi-, hijabista-, or turbanista blogger to indicate fashion bloggers dressed in the hijab or a turban.
These Muslim bloggers share fashion- and beauty tips with their Muslim followers and are considered influencers within their consumer demographic. The American magazine, Fortune, cites a 2013 report from Thomson Reuters, estimating global Muslim consumption of clothes and footwear at $ 266 billion. This number is expected to reach $484 billion by 2019.
Fashion blogging took off in 2012 in the Arab world, primarily in the Arab Gulf States, where prominent bloggers such as Kuwaiti Ascia, who boasts more than 2 million followers on Instagram, opened the door to the everyday life of Muslim women.
Muslim women also caused a stir in Europe, where Anglo-Egyptian London fashion blogger, Dina Tokio, who musters 1 million followers on Instagram, has paved the way for other bloggers and transformed her hobby into a business where she cooperates with various fashion designers.
Thus, it was merely a question of time before the great fashion houses noticed the large untapped market constituted by Muslim women. Previously, mainstream brands such as Mango and Zara had already caught on to this market and released dedicated Ramadan fashion collections for Muslim women. Italian high-end designers, Dolce & Gabbana, soon followed suit by launching a hijab- and abaya collection aimed at Muslim clients in January 2016.
Critique From All Sides
About the masters dissertation
The masters dissertation, Fashion with Faith – Re-Imagining the Veil. How Modest Fashion in Turkey is Changing the Narrative of Muslim Women is a study of the instrumentalisation of fashion, which contributes to new understandings of Muslim women.
The dissertation offers a critical reading of articles, op-ed pieces, and news stories concerning Islamic fashion, interviews with staff from Turkey’s first Islamic fashion magazine, Âlâ, and store managers from the conservative Fatih district in Istanbul as well as observations carried out in this area.
Muslim women were placed firmly on the global fashion agenda by 23-year old Mariah Idrissi, the Muslim model from H&M’s fashion campaign, whose photo was proliferated on social media.
Idrissi’s photo went viral, gaining more than 12.000 tweets with two days. This exposure suggests a very interesting political development – in the world of fashion as well as political debate. While some people admired H&M for the diversity message, others criticised the campaign.
Laurence Rossignol, French minister for women’s rights was a noticeable opponent of the campaign. Rossignol compared Muslim women who voluntarily don Islamic dress to pro-slavery African-Americans and she criticised fashion houses for the promotion of clothes, which confine women’s bodies. Concomitantly, conservative Muslims criticised Muslim women for succumbing to materialism and initiated a debate on female piety and modesty in Islam.
The H&M fashion campaign and the debates concerning fashion collections aimed at Muslim women by various fashion designers suggest the emergence of new perspectives and narratives on Muslim women. Previously, the headscarf had been associated with current debates on Muslim women, namely how the headscarf equals female subjugation.
Fashion, on the contrary, introduced Muslim women to a new public arena, offering women wearing the headscarf new possibilities as modern urban women. Simply put, the surprise elicited by the overwhelming focus on Islamic fashion suggests a hitherto simplistic image of Muslim women.
Fashion Et Cetera
The notion of a Muslim woman interested in fashion was, to many people, a fascinating subject not merely in numerous articles and social media posts but also in op-ed pieces from prominent Arab and European Muslim bloggers published in newspapers and women’s magazines. It suddenly befell fashion-conscious Muslim women to explain the crux of this wave. Many spectators were surprised by the compatibility of fashion and Islam. Debates on the Islamic headscarf were no longer one-dimensional. The trope of ‘the Muslim woman’ and fashion assumed a positive edge.
Elisabeth Wilson and Fashion Theory
In her book, Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity, Professor Elizabeth Wilson, London College of Fashion, proposes a fashion theory, which posits fashion as a universal concept inherent in human culture.
The book is a study of fashion as cultural phenomenon and aesthetic medium for the expression of ideas and experiences regardless of the cultural backgrounds of individual fashion users. Rather than putting forth a specific ethnocentric perspective on fashion, she seeks to understand fashion devoid of exoticisations, without rendering fashion too Islamic, too political, and – even – too Oriental.
Borrow Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity from KVINFO’s library.
Edward Said and the Cultural Construction of ’The Muslim Woman’
The masters dissertation references Edward Said’s ’Orientalism’ as an important study while maintaining a critical and reflective stance vis à vis categorisations of The Muslim Woman in the constructed narratives on Islamic femininity.
The importance of not merely considering Muslim women and their choices, viz. fashion choices, as a cultural struggle is argued since doing so serves to uphold these very structures. Muslim women’s fashion represents individual reflections on beauty and aesthetics.
In a November 2015 interview in the Berlingske daily newspaper, Zaineb Oussaidi, @zizi on Instagram, whose 160.000 followers make her one of Denmark’s most successful hijabi-bloggers, explained that she often elicited positive responses on account of her fashion choices.
Many people who were curious about her style would reach out, asking questions about her clothes. Zizi believed fashion-blogging served to dismantle prejudices about Muslim women because it elicited a more curious approach to the headscarf and fashion. Concurrently, the debate on ’the Muslim woman’ suggests that this trope is considered more interesting and approachable when referencing a well-dressed modern woman. The debate also demonstrates a dual attitude to modernity as Muslim women are increasingly considered within the context of fashion and modernity.
Thus, modernity is a pivotal factor whose expression is promoted not merely by Muslim women but by fashion designers, stylists, and brands. The empirical findings of the masters thesis, Fashion with Faith – Re-Imagining the Veil. How Modest Fashion in Turkey is Changing the Narrative of Muslim Women also supports this understanding.
The empirical data consists of an in-depth analysis of Turkey’s first Islamic fashion magazine, Âlâ, and interviews with the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Gülsüm Çiçekçi in Istanbul and store-managers from clothes shops in one of Istanbul’s conservative districts, Fatih, which is renowned for housing a number of large and small shops aimed at a Muslim clientele. The interview subjects repeatedly refer to Muslim women as modern and urban.
This notion of modernity and urbanity is expressed through the cut of the cloth and Muslim women’s ever-evolving ways of tying the headscarf. Muslim women thus adhere to the notion of modernity, distancing themselves from the previous generations by presenting a more playful approach to the headscarf and by wearing trendier clothes.
Fashion thus becomes the medium through which Muslim women are able to transform or re-narrate their own narratives. Furthermore, Muslim women’s consumption and the increasing commercialisation of clothes designed with Muslim women in mind demonstrates how Islamic fashion has transcended the geographical boundaries of the Islamic world and achieved a global reach.
The Commercialisation of Islamic Clothing
The commercialisation of Islamic clothing and products has paved the way for many Muslim women’s consumption of fashion and make-up. While many Muslim women also wear non-Islamic clothing brands there has been an upsurge in the choice of clothing brands addressing the needs of fashion-conscious Muslim women. A primary example of this trend is the use of popular Muslim bloggers for branding purposes in the advertising campaigns of fashion brands of all sizes.
Turkey is one of the countries, which has paved the way for the commercialisation of the headscarf and Islamic dress. Turks were introduced to consumer culture due to the economic and trade liberalisation policies of the 1980s when PM Turgut Özal opened Turkish industry to foreign investments and privatised previously state-run industries. The numerous companies, primarily in the conservative industrial towns of the Anatolian peninsula, benefited from the new economy and gave rise to a new Islamic bourgeoisie.
In Turkey, a more public Islamic lifestyle has concurrently gained ground due to the increasing industry of Islamic culture, which has promoted Islamic consumerism, e.g. shisha-smoking, halal coffeeshops, branded headscarves, and Islamic fashion magazines, in major towns and cities.
Although the majority of the Turkish population is Muslim, the headscarf has been highly politicised and banned in public institutions due to the secular status of the modern Turkish nationstate. The disputed ban, similar to the ban in France, was lifted in some state institutions, such as universities, in 2010. The ban was similarly lifted for members of the Turkish police in August 2016.
The politicisation of the headscarf thus plays an important role in the history of modern Turkey and the understanding of Islamic fashion since they are intricately engaged with the cultural constructions of ‘the Muslim woman’.
A Culture War
On account of the politicisation of the headscarf – often based on Orientalist notions of the headscarf and ‘the Muslim woman’ – culture and our understandings of culture also play a prominent role.
Danish sociologist, Henning Bech, assumes a critical stance vis-à-vis our understandings of culture. With what he calls a life-oriented concept of culture, Bech emphasises that culture should not necessarily understood as a sign of struggle or as oppositional, but rather that culture reflects life as it is lived and our life experiences.
In a similar vein, fashion-oriented Muslim women express a choice by their expressions of self through fashion. This conceptualisation of culture, thus constitutes the analytical point of departure of the masters dissertation, inasmuch as Muslim women – like other women – understand and experience fashion as a personal experience rather than necessarily a cultural battle.
This point constitutes a pivotal part of the critical analysis. Muslim women’s identities, in a setting where the headscarf is subjected to constant political debate, are often defined by society at large, and themes such as Islamic womanhood are often defined by understandings of the Islamic headscarf. Consequently, cultural constructions of ‘the Muslim woman’ are often founded in classic Orientalist stereotypes, wherein the Islamic headscarf is associated with oppression and alienation.
There is an inherent ambivalence in the favourable view on Muslim women considered more modern due to their fashion-conscious style. This understanding is problematic inasmuch as it posits Muslim women squarely within an understanding of modernity as a construction of Western hegemony. Orientalist discourses are reproduced by creating the separate categories of modern and traditional Muslim women.
One may also ask whether Islamic fashion, which is explicitly marketed to Muslim women, contributes to the status of Muslim women. On the other hand, this is a point in time where modernity, various forms of headscarves, and the cut of clothes are continuously re-interpreted by Muslim women and debates on modernity are constantly valued and re-defined among Muslims.
The fashion-conscious Muslim women express themselves through the medium of fashion and demonstrate the non-existence of a wider Muslim collectivity and a collective ‘Muslim woman’. Muslim women are thus, through their fashion choices, contributing to a redefinition of stereotypes repositioning Muslim women as modern and urban. Muslim women’s personal experiences with the Islamic headscarf and their fashion choices occurs within the realm of their own personal experiences and history.