“American Beauty” is a new series in which Yahoo Lifestyle takes a virtual cross-country journey to discover what beauty means — reimagining the American flag through the diverse group of faces that make up the United States of America. For our first installment, we’re focusing on Muslim-American women, highlighting what makes this group unique while showcasing the common threads that bring us together.
Hijabis, Muslim women who cover their hair, are a hot commodity in the American fashion and beauty industry right now. In 2016, Colorado native Nura Afia, 26, made headlines when CoverGirl made her an ambassador. She became the first Muslim woman wearing a headscarf to fill the void of representation in makeup commercials.That same year, Halima Aden, a 20-year-old Somali-American from Minnesota, made history when she competed in the Miss Minnesota USA Pageant. The exposure propelled her to New York Fashion Week to model for Kanye West‘s Yeezy Season 5, a 2017 campaign for American Eagle, and, this past July, Aden became the first hijab-wearing model on the cover of Teen Vogue.
For some, these trailblazing young women are defying the stereotypical image of oppressed, veiled Muslim women that so often dominates mainstream coverage. “I was born and raised in Oklahoma,” says Hoda Katebi, 23, a political fashion writer at JooJoo Azad, and it would have been really nice to be able to open up a magazine and see someone wearing a hijab, rather than the only time that I see Muslims represented would be playing terrorists in movies or on television.”
For others, there is a fear and cynicism that corporations are tokenizing these women to tap into a new, large, and profitable market. “What are we really challenging by fighting for token representation? … Under what conditions and under whose gaze are we represented?” asks New York-based writer Najma Sharif.
Debates on the public visibility of the Muslim woman are not new.
How a Muslim woman should view her identity is an ancient dilemma: exotic lover, abused victim, voiceless sufferer, devout maiden, potential terrorist, obedient servant. The list goes on. Broadly speaking, colonialists championed the cause of unveiling the Muslim woman to save and liberate her. Islamists regulated her dress code and behavior to protect and honor her. Patriarchy is at play on both ends.
The Muslim female body often becomes the symbol of militarized progress and repressive piety. But the younger generation of Muslim American women is challenging these ideas, redefining what it means to be fashionable, Muslim, and American.
Fact: Not every Muslim woman wears a headscarf.
The hijab remains a controversial topic among Muslims to this day. It can be worn as a religious obligation to dress modestly, a symbol of anti-colonial resistance, a feminist statement, and some choose to wear it as protection against sexual harassment. Yet, nuances fall through the cracks. Despite common perceptions, not every Muslim woman wears a headscarf, is an Arab, or an immigrant.
Demographics tell a diverse story.
Around 24 percent of U.S. Muslims are descendants of slaves with lineage roots dating back to when settlers seized American soil. Three-quarters of Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants or the children of immigrants. They come from South Asia, Asia-Pacific regions such as Iran and Indonesia, the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe. There are different sects and schools of Islam: Shi’a, Ahmadiyya, Sunni, Sufi, progressive, Mahdavi, Druze, and Ibadi.
Islam means different things to different Muslims. Some practice the religion. Others do not. The colorful myriad of Muslim women is depicted in these 100 Years of Hijab Fashion videos from the Middle East and Africa.
The American Muslim population is growing — and so is its representation
An estimated 3.45 million in the United States — and growing at the rate of 100,000 per year — Muslims are often depicted in movies and discussed in the media within the framework of violence and terrorism post-Sept. 11. This rhetoric reached new heights during the campaigns leading to the 2016 U.S. elections.
Around the same time, major U.S. fashion designers and beauty retailers started embracing Muslim women and catering to their clothing needs. Dolce and Gabbana produced a collection of hijabs and abayas. Nike launched its Pro Hijab sportswear line, which delighted many but angered some, who accused the brand of supporting the oppression of women. Macy’s partnered with the Verona Collection, a clothing brand launched by a Muslim convert at an Orlando boutique, and introduced a modest fashion line including hijabs. A dark-skinned, hijab-wearing Barbie was created to celebrate Muslim-American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Yahoo Lifestyle conducted a survey in July 2018 among 4,812 female U.S. residents age 18 and above, including 216 Muslim women, on American women’s beauty habits and attitudes. A third of the latter group believes that the level of Muslim women’s representation has improved in the last five years, and that number is even higher among Muslim-American millennials, at 40 percent.
Afsoon Hansia, 28, a doctoral student in communication at University of California, Santa Barbara, sees this is a win-win situation. “For corporations, it allows them to tap into a major American community, and for Muslims, it allows the hijab to become more normalized, which is ultimately the only way to battle xenophobia,” she says.
And it is a winning situation for business: A recent Thomson Reuters State of the Global Islamic Economy report estimated that in 2015 revenues from modest fashion clothing purchased by Muslim women globally was $44 billion. The report projected that spending on modest clothing globally will reach $368 billion by 2021.
The increased visibility of Muslim women in brand promotions is welcomed by many.
Catching a glimpse of a woman wearing a hijab displayed on the rack as you walk down the magazine aisle in the grocery stores can be empowering. “I love that my daughter is seeing Muslim women who are awesome and who also happen to wear hijab. … We are here, we are visible, we are Muslim-American women who have been part of this society,” 30-year-old freelance journalist and kindergarten teacher Aya Khalil tells Yahoo Lifestyle. She uses these magazines as an educational tool to help facilitate relevant discussions in her classrooms.
Biochemist Farah Baara, 27, believes that hijabi models are courageous for leading the way and leaving their mark on the American beauty culture. “To put themselves out there and to open the door for people of all backgrounds to get curious about hijab, what it means, what it entails, why it’s worn just by seeing their face on a billboard. If that’s not impactful I don’t know what is,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The public visibility of hijab is of even greater importance to Muslim women of color, because black Muslim women are underrepresented in media, fashion, and beauty. “Growing up I have never seen a Muslim girl (let alone a black Muslim girl) represented in a positive light, and I used to struggle with loving my identity,” explains 21-year-old Eritrean-American blogger Ahlam Abdelkader.
Including Muslim women consumers in targeted campaigns remains controversial — and some find it neither inclusive nor empowering.
“If you look at a lot of the campaigns, you’ll see very thin, white-looking Muslim women or European Muslims who are being shown as the face of Islam,” explains body-positive hijab-wearing model and blogger of Beauty and the Muse Leah Vernon, 30. Describing herself as an African-American Muslim woman living in Detroit in “a fat body, that’s divorced and the rebel,” Vernon believes that popular representation of Muslim women is one-dimensional. “Women who don’t wear hijab are just as Muslim as a girl who does wear hijab,” she adds.
“We’re normalizing our very, very niche-type of Muslimness that … captures a lot of superficiality without any substance,” adds Mary Turfah, a 23-year-old medical student at University of Michigan.
Others point out that these campaigns are devoid of efforts to combat institutionalized anti-Muslim and anti-black ideologies. “It’s a dangerous way of whitewashing Islam to make it more appealing to people who hate brown and black skin,” New York-based fashion designer and journalist Eman Idil Bare, 25, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think it’s very strategic. … They want Muslim women who sound white, look white, look very American and can kind of dilute the voice of Muslim women who experience both Islamophobia and racism inside and outside the Muslim community.”
In Yahoo Lifestyle’s survey, 43 percent of Muslim-American women consider the fashion industry to be biased. Sixty-one percent say they feel the amount of representation Muslim women receive in the media is not enough and two out of three think Muslim women are underrepresented — especially in politics, business, and advertising.
Blogger Halimah Elmariah, 22, wants the Muslim community to realize that representation doesn’t just mean featuring Muslim women in magazines, media outlets, and on runways. “Representation for Muslims should mean more teachers, bakers, accountants, professors, lawyers, business owners, public relations professionals, et cetera,” she says.
“The hijab-wearing Barbie or the D&G abayas are classic instances of racial capitalism, where predominantly white institutions extract economic and social value from Muslim identities. Muslims are not only invited to transform themselves into consumers, but, socially, such organizations can also lay claim to ‘valuing diversity’ while doing little to change their policies towards hiring/promoting/sustaining members of the group that they feign concern about,” writes scholar of gender, Islam, and youth studies Shenila Khoja-Moolji.
What are the tradeoffs of increased Muslim representation?
As Muslim women gain increasing visibility in the fashion and beauty world, veiled women are “proving modesty is anything but boring.” But feminists have long debated the “beauty myth” as patriarchal pressure to conform to unrealistic physical standards because of the consumer culture and mass media. Journalist and feminist Naomi Wolf writes that beauty is the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.”
Bessma Haider, 26, editor in chief of MostlyMuslim.com is happy Muslim models are celebrated in mainstream fashion and beauty brands, but she feels it puts pressure on Muslim women to look like the models being used to represent them.
“If I don’t cake my face with makeup, or peek some of my hair out of my scarf, or wear form-fitting clothes, I am still perceived as oppressed, weak, and brainwashed — and of course, not American enough. … All I have done is resisted the social pressures that are trying to fit me into the same box as everyone else and turn me into one more consumer of a multi-billion-dollar industry. While the hijab is used to protect us from being forced into this box, it is now being used as a tool to put us into it,” she says.
Political fashion writer Hoda Katebi asks if Muslims are being used and tricked into buying things without having the benefits of being truly understood as Muslims. She mentions the 2016 H&M campaign featuring Muslim models wearing hijabs that stirred public debates and excited many. “No one really talks about the fact that H&M uses incredibly horrible labor conditions in Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh or Indonesia,” she adds. Katebi calls this “greenwashing”, where retailers divert attention from the injustices their brands are causing by promoting diversity and inclusion of Muslim women.
Tahira Ayub, a 23-year-old blogger, says that Muslims also bear the double of burden of unequal competition against brands and exploitative labor conditions in sweatshops. “Not only are Muslim-owned companies that have been making these products for years out of need (for example, athletic hijabs) … getting screwed over by these giant corporations (for example, Nike Pro Hijabs) that are benefitting from our money when we buy [their] products, but [the large companies] also benefit from the unfair labor of people who look like us and are back in our home countries,” she adds.
Cultural appropriation or appreciation: Where does the line get crossed?
In the Yahoo Lifestyle survey, 92 percent of Muslim women expressed a strong connection to their heritage, and 75 percent said they fear appropriation of Muslim culture by the mainstream. The surge of using hijabi women’s faces and bodies in makeup and fashion campaigns can easily slip into cultural appropriation.
Non-Muslim Hollywood celebrities have been fetishizing and sexualizing the hijab for entertainment purposes. “Western pop stars are trying to shock by appropriating traditional Islamic dress,” writes Arwa Mahdawi. Lady Gaga wore a burqa to Philip Treacy’s London Fashion Week show. Nicki Minaj wore a headscarf as she met fans outside the Manchester Arena in England. Rihanna chose to dress in a black jumpsuit and a hijab during a visit to the United Arab Emirates in 2013.
Recently, Gucci was also criticized for dressing white, non-Muslim models in niqabs and hijabs during Milan Fashion Week. “What message does that send? That it’s OK to wear a hijab if you’re young, beautiful, rich, and white but not if you’re actually a Muslim or a person of color? It may seem like borrowing or being inspired by something seemingly superficial, but what’s not being borrowed is the social implications, the prejudice, and the internalized racism,” says fashion photographer Faiyaz Kolia.
Wearing a hijab as a costume for fun, fetishism, or fashion is offensive to the Muslims who believe it is a religious obligation or an identity marker. “Wearing Islamic clothing without understanding its purpose or implications for actual Muslim women is shallow and insensitive,” writes Hanan Mohamed.
Better representation is not causing a decrease in discrimination.
Better representation of Muslim woman in the U.S. and globally is not combating the types of challenges American Muslims may face on a daily basis, such as discrimination and threats of violence when they express their culture.
Muslim women are far more likely to experience religious (55 percent versus 34 percent of the general population of women) or racial (58 percent versus 42 percent of all women) discrimination, Yahoo Lifestyle’s survey found. Three-fourths (75 percent) of Muslims feel they are being judged for the way they dress, and a little less than a third have been criticized for something they have worn at work (both sentiments are higher among younger women).
Even more alarmingly, the number of assaults against Muslims in the United States rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, surpassing the rate in 2001, the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. There were 307 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2016, a 19 percent increase from 2015.
“The magazine cover is not preventing any type of racism from happening,” notes Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, a 40-year-old assistant professor of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan and senior editor at sapelosquare.com. “It has to be matched with organizing, activism, making sure that every Muslim woman — whether she is on the cover of a magazine or not — is able to live her life free of discrimination and violence. Those two things have to happen at the same time,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Muslim women are not a monolith. Their realities are diverse.
There is no blueprint for being human, female, or Muslim. “We have a racial and religious differences, but they don’t matter anymore and we can all center on buying makeup and buying clothes and all other differences that matter are easily ignored,” says. Taneem Husain, 32, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Keene State College.
The stories of everyday Muslim women — black, Asian, Latina, Arab, queer, able-bodied, with special needs, immigrant, convert — and their lived experiences often remain on the margins.
If the beauty and fashion industry is to be genuine in its efforts to include Muslim women, “it has to be attuned to the diversity within these groups. If fashion brands segment Muslim consumers — or any religious consumer — it increases the risk of alienating the very consumers they’re attempting to include,” writes Nathaniel S. Palmer.
Nuanced representation and inclusion of Muslim women may require more than just hiring them as fashion or beauty models.