Why Non Muslim Women Have Spent Ramadan Doing The Hijab Challenge

Nike released its first sports hijab last December, heralded with sleek, black-and-white photographs of accomplished Muslim athletes wearing the Pro Hijab emblazoned with the iconic swoosh. The same month, TSA pulled 14 women who wear hijab out of a security check line at Newark Airport; they were then patted down, searched, and detained for two hours.

From February to March, Gucci, Versace, and other luxury brands at autumn/winter fashion week dressed mostly white models in hijab-like headscarves. Around that time, two women filed a civil rights lawsuit against New York City related to an incident in which the NYPD forced them to remove their hijabs for mugshots.

Gap, a clothing brand known for its all-American ethos, featured a young girl in a hijab smiling broadly in its back-to-school ads this past summer. Meanwhile, children were forced to leave a public pool in Delaware; they were told that their hijabs could clog the filtration system.

Muslim women and Muslim fashion currently have unprecedented visibility in American consumer culture. Yet women who cover are among the most visible targets for curtailed civil liberties, violence, and discrimination in the anti-Muslim climate intensified by Donald Trump’s presidency.

By selling modest clothing or spotlighting a hijabi in an ad campaign, the U.S. clothing industry is beckoning Muslim women to be its latest consumer niche. In order to tap into the multibillion-dollar potential of the U.S. Muslim consumer market, large retailers have positioned themselves as socially conscious havens for Muslims, operating on a profit motive rather than a moral imperative.

Many Muslim women, especially those who grew up post-9/11, may find inclusion as consumers to be a reprieve from everyday Islamophobia. However, the representations circulated by retail companies are reductive of Muslim-American identity. Certain Muslim women who conform to expectations of patriotism and consumption are granted visibility, while others, like black Muslim women, are erased from the narrative of Islam in America. Meanwhile, Muslims whose labor is exploited overseas are disappeared from corporate conscience.

The Muslim Consumer Market

In February, Macy’s became the first U.S. department store to sell a modest clothing line, called the Verona Collection. Macy’s was widely praised as “inclusive” and “taking diversity very seriously.” Refinery29 raved, “It’s great to see Macy’s really taking the steps to champion the causes it says it believes in.”


Macy’s Verona Collection.

Photos: Lisa Vogl/Courtesy of Lisa Vogl

Macy’s debuted the Verona Collection shortly after the retailer announced that several stores would close in 2018 (more than 120 stores have shuttered since 2015). A week before the launch, Macy’s stock hit its lowest point of 2018. But soon after the announcement, things seemed to be looking up for the flailing company. A business analyst said, “At this time for investors the new clothing line should be treated with cautious excitement for what it may mean for the company moving forward.”

Macy’s financial instability when starting to sell hijabs and modest clothing calls into question the motive behind suddenly catering to Muslim consumers. Why now?

“It feels like a way of generating publicity by putting out an inclusive image, trying to make themselves seem more relevant,” Sylvia Chan-Malik, author of “Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam,” told The Intercept. “But perhaps that’s cynical, because I know a lot of Muslim women who were very happy about it. I just don’t know what the intentions are.”

In addition to Nike, Gap, and high-end designers, there are several recent examples of the U.S. retail and fashion industry courting Muslim women who dress modestly. In 2016, New York Fashion Week presented its first all-hijab runway show from Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan. That November, CoverGirl brought on hijabi beauty blogger Nura Afia as its latest brand ambassador. This past May, H&M released a modest clothing line leading up to Ramadan.

Since the early 2010s, multinational Western companies have catered to Muslim consumers after marketing consultants identified them as an influential demographic with growing spending power. According to the latest Thomson Reuters State of the Global Islamic Economy Report, Muslims worldwide spent about $254 billion on clothing in 2016, which was predicted to increase to $373 billion by 2022.

Western retailers have mostly concentrated their Muslim outreach to foreign consumers. Dolce & Gabbana, Tommy Hilfiger, and DKNY are among the brands that have sold Ramadan capsule collections or stocked modest clothing exclusively in their Middle East outlets. This past summer, MAC Cosmetics put out a glamorous makeup tutorial for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal during Ramadan, targeted at women in the Gulf region.

Consumer research on the U.S. market revealed a similar opportunity for profit. In 2013, Ogilvy Noor, the “Islamic branding” division of advertising company Ogilvy, estimated American Muslim spending power to be at $170 billion. DinarStandard and the American Muslim Consumer Consortium reported that Muslim-Americans spent $5.4 billion on apparel that same year.


Blogger Rawan Al Sadi displaying her Nike hijab.

Photo: Courtesy of Rawan Al Sadi

Ogilvy Noor has determined that Muslim millennials are driving consumption with their collective belief that “faith and modernity go hand in hand.”

“If I was to pick one person who represents the cutting edge of Muslim futurists, it would be a woman: educated, tech-savvy, worldly, intent on defining her own future, brand loyal and conscious that her consumption says something important about who she is and how she chooses to live her life,” explained Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Ogilvy Noor, who is Muslim. “The consumers these brands are targeting are young, cool and ready to spend their money.”

Ogilvy Noor’s approach inches toward essentializing who young Muslims are, which can then be monetized by corporations. The staggering economic power of the Muslim market is the determining factor in retail efforts to tap into it — less so a response to what Muslims could actually benefit from. But for many young Muslim women, consumer visibility can signal mainstream recognition and belonging, regardless of corporate intention.

“Maybe I’ll Feel More Safe”

While retailers are ultimately incentivized by profit, clothing and cosmetics brands are also providing more options for women who choose to cover, as well as fulfilling some hijabis’ desires for representation, said Elizabeth Bucar, author of “Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress.”

“Muslims are a large part of the American population today — they’re visible,” Bucar, an associate professor at Northeastern University, told The Intercept. “They’re running for office, they’re our co-workers, they’re our neighbors, and, from a retail point of view, they are also consumers.”

Many Muslim women celebrate, and actively participate in, efforts to acknowledge them as consumers. Muslim beauty and fashion bloggers on Instagram and YouTube promote brands to hundreds of thousands of followers. Verona Collection designer Lisa Vogl and model Mariah Idrissi are among those who have found commercial success in collaboration with large brands.

In September, the de Young Museum in San Francisco opened the first major museum exhibition on contemporary Muslim fashions, signaling that Muslim women’s clothing is a legitimate topic of interest in the U.S. “We wanted to share what we’ve been seeing in Muslim fashion with the larger world in a way that could create a deeper understanding,” the de Young’s former director, Max Hollein, told the New York Times.


The “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibit, organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in San Francisco, Calif.

Photo: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Consumer visibility can also signal a step toward the inclusion of Muslims as American in politically hostile times, particularly for the generation who grew up during the war on terror, when most representations have cast Muslims as foreign terrorists and a threat to national security.

“It’s incredibly validating on an individual level to Muslim women who wear the scarf, who have to struggle with the comments and the vitriol and the violence that they encounter every day,” said Chan-Malik, an associate professor at Rutgers University. “It’s almost a very practical sense of relief, like, ‘Oh, if this becomes more normalized, maybe I’ll feel more safe.’”

That increased representation is meaningful to some Muslim women cannot be ignored. However, who gets to be seen and how exposes the underlying logics of capitalism that flatten visibility into which Muslim women are the most marketable.

The “Hijab Fetish”

The market homogenizes Muslim women, collapsing tremendous diversity into a product that can be easily digested. “Certain kinds of representation and visibility are privileged, while others are rendered undesirable,” write Duke University associate professor Ellen McLarney and University of North Carolina associate professor Banu Gökariksel. “Muslim identities unpalatable to the sensibilities of the market are excluded, often leading to further marginalizations at the intersections of class, race, and ethnicity.”

This is evident in how the fashion and beauty industries grant visibility to certain Muslim women. Writing about the “hijab fetish” in consumer culture, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik described how representations of Muslim women in advertising conform to “an image of an over-filtered, hot, bourgeois, fair-skinned hijabi woman, whose highlight is ‘on fleek’.”

In fact, most Muslim women in the U.S. do not always wear a headscarf in public; one-fifth of American Muslims are black; almost half of Muslim-Americans reported incomes under $30,000 last year; and many American Muslims identify as queer, transgender, and gender nonconforming.

Despite the fact that black Muslim women are largely absent from mainstream consumer culture, said Kayla Wheeler, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University, the women of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple laid the foundation for Muslim fashion in the U.S decades ago.

“The Nation of Islam tried to use clothing to give black women a new respectable identity that they had been denied by white supremacy, so they could … push back against stereotypes of black women as promiscuous or asexual or not real women or humans at all,” said Wheeler, who researches black Muslim women’s fashion.

Somali-American model Halima Aden and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, along with designers Nzinga Knight, Eman Idil, and Lubna Muhammad, are among the few black Muslim women who have been given visibility in the fashion industry.

Black Muslim women are triply vulnerable in the U.S. to racist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic attacks.

Wheeler said that black Muslim women’s headscarves can be racially distinctive in wrapping styles and fabrics — nuances that are obscured among the commercial images of predominantly Middle Eastern and South Asian women. Meanwhile, black Muslim women are triply vulnerable in the U.S. to racist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic attacks (last month, a white man pulled a gun on a group of black Muslim teenagers, including headscarf-wearing girls, at a McDonald’s in Minnesota).

“Black Muslims are not seen as sympathetically as brown Muslims,” Wheeler told The Intercept. “Everyone faces Islamophobia, but when you add anti-blackness and suspicions about black Islam not being real Islam, they become not only a foreign threat, but a domestic threat.”

Corporate posturing to marginalized groups — what University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong describes as racial capitalism — has long been a business practice to persuade minority groups to become brand loyal and liberal consumers to buy products as a political statement.


A still from a L’Oréal Paris advertisement featuring Amena Khan.

Source : https://theintercept.com/2018/12/29/muslim-women-hijab-fashion-capitalism/

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