Mainstream and social media has recently been abuzz with Muslim women removing their scarves. My initial reaction is to ask why anyone feels the need to publicly announce a choice so personal as wearing a scarf or removing it. It seems to me that to create any sort of hype around this is to further entrench the notion that in the priority of values, needs and perceptions of Muslim women, it is a piece of material that must always be placed center stage. The contemporary scholar and prolific translator of Islamic texts, Aisha Bewley, notes that “It seems that women’s dress has been transformed into the badge of Islamic identity. You do not define your identity as a Muslim by a piece of cloth… The constant and almost exclusive focus on women’s dress has become a distraction from the real issues about which Muslims should be much more passionate… People ignore the fact that neither the man nor the woman is empowered in modern society.”
That a discussion on Muslim womanhood inevitably ends up being a discussion on the hijab is distressing in the face of so many other important questions that need answering and reflection. Yet, in the context of influencer culture, many of us are talking about it. And the camp is definitively split into two. On the one hand, we have those who lament the fact that their favorite modest influencer is no longer a “hijabi”. Their arguments either run along religious lines or economic ones. The former is an expressed disappointment at no longer fulfilling a faith-based obligation while the latter is outrage at the way in which individuals have used the headscarf to build a brand and find a niche in the market, only to discard it once its purpose has been served.
The other camp cheers on the authenticity and the courage to live one’s truth even in the face of scrutiny and horrendous abuse by people who disagree with their position (Dina Tokio, for instance posted a 45 minute video on YouTube reading out horrifying comments from people online, some comments even went as far as to threaten her and her family). For this group, the decision to remove the headscarf is fundamentally about choice. A choice is a choice and no restrictions whatsoever should determine how one chooses – especially on how they decide to dress.
Then there are some double agents – those who do not wish to have much of an opinion women’s dress but who recognize the political symbolism that has come with being so called “represented” in mainstream media as a hijab-wearing woman. Thus, this group believes that however undue the burden placed on these women is – it is something they chose for themselves by entering the public arena in the first place.
To me, this is where much of the problem lies – in the whole representation thing. Muslims born and raised in “the West”, try to find harmony between living life as a Muslim and living in societies that are at best indifferent to, or at worst hostile to Muslim women. Many have found the fashion campaigns and media coverage of women dressed in elegant modest wear and turbans to be a sign of progress and acceptance. The really big “modest influencers” have received money and attention by collaborating with big brands, writing books and being featured in documentaries and magazines. It is no mean feat. A mere 10 years ago, the only “halaal fashion” was found sporadically on a few pages on Facebook and Lookbook. That there are covered women walking the runway and adorning massive billboards today, is something new. These women certainly changed the game.
But something else changed the game too – the economic catastrophe of 2008. And it’s crucial that we pay attention to the chronology. Former senior vice-president of Gucci, Alexandra Gillespie, noted that 2009 was “the worst year on record for the luxury sector”. The fiscal difficulties in the wake of the recession, prompted Gillespie to say “This is not a time to panic, this is a time to define and redefine the brand.”
And redefine the brands, they did. The fashion itself changed, and designer houses were now featuring styles and forms that appealed to the markets of the Middle East and Russia, the latter booming from oil wealth because of price spikes in crude in 2007 and 2008. The former, booming from, well – oil. Full stop.
It was not merely the money of Arab women that made the fashion industry aggressively pursue the Middle East – it was also the social calendar of its inhabitants. With an estimated 15 – 20 weddings a year and private parties taking place every month, the demand for haute couture is certainly higher in the Middle East, than say North America.
Over the past decade, the growth in retail in the Arab world outperformed the markets of Russia and Asia and the industry has taken note. Thomas Patrick, a chief executive of Hermes told Reuters that between 2009 and 2011 alone, the Middle East generated 30 – 35 percent of Hermes’ annual sales. Jeffry Aronnson who has previously run Donna Karen, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Emanuel Ungaro said “Women from the Middle East are our top buyers and they are likely to remain so.”
The majority of women targeted in the wealthy Gulf are Muslim and many would have no problem buying a dress with a plunging neckline to wear at women’s-only parties or underneath their abayas. But this sparked a thought – what would happen if wealthy Muslim women began wearing designer abayas? And this is precisely what Dolce & Gabbana did by launching their abaya and hijab collection in 2016 – a collection which is now eagerly anticipated annually. Forbes called it “their smartest move in years”.
The statistics speak for themselves and personal experience also reveals that every major fashion house now has at least one oud fragrance in their perfume collection – some have even created an entire line of oud, sandalwood and rose scents for sale exclusively in the Middle East. But all this remained at an exotic distance – it was not a nod to the Muslim woman living in Paris or Rome, but rather praise for a culture that is remote. In discussing his brand’s abaya collection, Stefano Gabbana said “We thought about common images linked to the Middle East and we transformed them into nuances and embroideries. For example, the warm colours of the sandy beaches and the desert dunes, the deep colours of the sky, the spicy scents of the souqs and the Arabian palaces with their golden domes and intricate tiles”.
From an aesthetic perspective, the abayas are beautiful; they are made of luxurious fabrics and make use of florals and bright colours. But what Gabbana calls “common images” is rather blatant orientalism – the representation of Asia in a stereotyped way that exaggerates and distorts reality. Attracting even more criticism is the fact that even in the 2019 collection, not a single model for the collection is Arab or Muslim. And this is where the modest influencers came in.
Well not exactly – Hermes hardly trolled Instagram looking for Muslim influencers to do a turban tutorial using one of their coveted hand-rolled hem silk scarves – but the “fast fashion” industry was more than happy to oblige. With retail trade normalizing in the mid 2010s, it became clear to businesses that targeting Muslims outside the Middle East would be to tap into a treasure trove – the market was worth $245 billion in 2015, has been growing steadily and is likely increase to over $368 billion by 2021. However, to succeed, these affordable high fashion brands knew that they needed to include “fashion conscious Muslim women in the form of bloggers, designers and stylists [who] have been taking center stage for a good few years” as Dina Torkia, a self-described “founder” of the hijabi fashion movement, stated.
While the luxury sector had a very specific Muslim woman in mind, other brands would have to take more into consideration and avoid treating the market as a monolithic entity – what a fashion conscious Muslim woman looks like in Oman is different to one in Indonesia. According to the Pew Research Center, within the community of Muslims, it is the Muslim millenials who are responsible for a larger percentage of the spending as they are “more inclined to spend their money on fashion and beauty as a way of expressing their individual identity or creativity.”
As a trial run, brands began to cash in on Ramadan by launching “Ramadan Collections”. Many Muslim women sighed with relief at the sight of these creative modest collections – gone were the days of wearing three to four items of clothing to ensure desired levels of comfort. And goodbye to the only stylish options being a mid-thigh dress over skinny jeans.
Mango and Zara were among the first to do so, and H&M went even further in their campaign featuring a headscarf-clad Mariah Idrissi in 2013. The promotional video, aimed at sending a message about inclusivity and captioned “fashion has no rules”, also featured plus size models, an amputee, men in skirts and women showing off their armpit hair. Idrissi was scouted by H&M via Instagram and described the experience as a “big achievement” while also setting the hearts of other wannabe influencers racing in the hopes that they too could be scouted and get their big break.
Clearly all this was a win-win. Aspiring influencers were beginning to see the deals they coveted become a reality and fashion brands were being rewarded by consumers who regard them as ‘woke’. The influencers were described as unstoppable and the brands were described as “courageous” for creating modest collections. Hardly any descriptions include that it is in the economic interest of these companies to embark on these campaigns in the first place.
I am still surprised at the dearth of discussion around Muslim influencers in what seems to be a casebook example of capitalist co-opting. Much has been written about how feminism has been used to sell things through the use of “real women” and female empowerment in advertising. Similarly, Colin Kaepernick’s Nike deal was subject to much criticism because while Nike once more positioned itself as anti-establishment and a mouthpiece of dissent – Nike’s own record of labour-rights violations is appalling. Kaepernick and Nike were not given a free pass simply because the advert was emotive and hit the right notes.
So why is it that Muslim modest fashionistas are not similarly critiqued? The answer lies in the nature of social media and influencer culture itself. Unlike following a meme-page, an athlete or a comedian, to follow an influencer is to follow the market, regardless of weather the Instagram post is described as a “sponsored post/paid partnership” or not.
The reason for this is what sociologists, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in the 1950s, called “parasocial interactions”. They theorized that wherever there is an illusion of familiarity between a spectator and a public figure, the spectator’s behaviour is profoundly impacted because they now believe they have a bond with this particular public figure. Prior to the advent of social media, spectators would create a bond that mirrors real-life interactions by learning about the private lives of celebrities. Today, the illusion is more powerful because a follower can like, comment and share a post and thus feel quite connected to their favorite influencer (even if it goes unnoticed). We are given premium access into the private lives of celebrities and influencers – in other words, this is parasocial interaction in overdrive.
Such a theory is intuitive, as is the idea that the more “open”, “real” and “authentic” an influencer is – the more popular they are. In addition to wealth, attractiveness and expertise, a successful influencer must be able to elicit the “friendship” of her followers in order to maintain credibility. And it is this credibility that so-called hijabi influencers have cultivated by posting content that is not only to do with clothing. A window into their marriages, children and families together with reality show like interviews, Q&As and advice posts are all a part of what the most successful influencers do.
Those sociologists of the 1950s were ahead of their time in positing that there are certain conditions that enable a spectator or member of the audience to accept the role of participant in a parasocial interaction. Furthermore, there is a special need to appeal to those who are lonely. Why? Because loneliness triggers the need for a stranger (i.e. the celebrity) to be within perceivable reach even more.
It’s clear then, that many young Muslim women would find affinity with modest influencers who attract as many likes with their make up tutorials as they do with their confessions on anxiety. A recent report stated that millenials are experiencing what has been called a “loneliness epidemic” with 30% of millenials saying that they always or often feel lonely. Muslim women are no exception to feelings of being isolated in one’s society, community, family or marriage. So it is no wonder that they are some of the key participants in parasocial interactions with the influencers they feel most connected to.
The danger, however, according to contemporary sociologist William Barylo is that parasocial interactions mean that “people cease being persons, instead they become brands”. And all brands experience growth and decline. There are shifts in the marketing environment. Some brands lose market share and others gain. This is both basic and intuitive, but the cynic in me believes that something else has taken place.
It may simply be the case that the demand for hijab-wearing fashionistas simply is no longer there. Or at the very least has decreased. This is for a number of reasons. To begin with, the image of hijab can now be associated with women of far more influence and power or who occupy a far greater space in the popular imagination, for better or for worse. Nobel Prize Winner Malala Yousefzai. Olympic gold medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad. New York Times Best-Selling author Tahera Mafi. Muscian Sinéad O’Conner. US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Patisserie chef Nadiya Hussein and comedian Nadirah Pierre.
Secondly, the industry is not as reliant on influencers anymore. The Islamic Fashion and Design Council was launched by Alia Khan in New York in 2013 and works with global retailers on the marketing and sustainability of modest clothes. Their Pret-A-Cover Fashion Week began in 2017 and has become an event to diarize. When it comes to sales, Ghizlan Guenez is the powerhouse behind The Modist – an e-commerce site described as ‘the Net-A-Porter of modest wear’, and who in July of this year added Valentino, Victoria Beckham and Burberry to their list of sellers. The Modist has non-denominational modest clothes, and that in itself is telling. Muslim women are no longer the only demographic championing this style of fashion. Japanese brand Uniqlo, describes its ‘Hana Tajima’ range as “a special modest-wear collection” – no mention of Ramadan and Muslims, because it targets the bigger “modest movement” of which women from the Orthodox Jewish and Mormon communities also play a significant role.
Thirdly, it is not just faith driving the modest movement – it is also the fashion industry itself. Designer collections and the “covered up” look on the red carpet are all indications that the current fashion moment we are in enjoys full sleeves and high necks, and prefers mid-calf skirts over the “naked dress”. Fashion critic for the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman describes the modest look as the core of contemporary fashion. She wrote in 2017, “The tectonic plates of fashion have shifted…” and when looking into her own closet she “discovered that after over four decades of believing long skirts represented women’s anti-liberation… I had acquired over the past six months not just one ankle-length skirt, but two dresses with handkerchief hems that likewise reach my feet. Also long sleeves and round necks.”
Even Tom Ford – yes that Tom Ford, the man whose ad campaigns are hypersexaulized and who created a perfume to smell like cocaine and a man’s crotch – boldly declared “Fashion is supposed to be, and should be, a fashion designer’s perception of where we are culturally, and now is not the time for super-sexy clothes”.
In as much as dressing and covering is a profoundly personal endeavor, in this case there are definitive links to the market, the fashion industry and amassing followers. It is also interesting to note that the women who once trail-blazed into the mainstream wearing the headscarf have all too predictably been used in the familiar trope of freedom-from-hijab as the ultimate symbol of liberation. In response to Ascia al Faraj’s recent post and video on removing the hijab, Cosmo Middle East wrote rather patronizingly, “Ascia is not wearing a headscarf anymore and embracing who she is. Talk about a big move…”
For some women removing the headscarf is true liberation and of course it follows that if there is going to be a World Hijab Day, there is going to be a No Hijab Day too. And while the discussion will always lend itself to a larger political conversation, including the latest buzz around French Montana’s use of niqab clad women as his “vixens” in a music video – the conversation around influencers and influencer culture is tied definitively to the market. And the market has loyalty to nothing – least of all a headscarf.
And rightly so.
It’s time to stop seeing influencers as friends, allies or spokeswomen for Islam. They are merchants. They are selling you a brand, their brand. You cannot alter the brand and mold it to your liking, but don’t worry – be assured that you do have the power to choose if you will be a consumer of it or not.