The Fashionable and the Faithful
How the American Hijabista Movement Sparks a Debate on Identity
Fashion is often painted as a frivolous endeavor – an exercise in superficial consumerism, with teeny-boppers and hedonists enticed into donning the latest fads, conforming to a single image imposed by gossip magazines, clothing companies, and celebrity worship.
For others, however, fashion constitutes a meaningful form of self-expression, a tool for developing one’s individual identity, even one’s spirituality.
This friction, between fashion as a superficial exercise and as a more consequential one, is perhaps no more apparent than in the arena of Muslim-American fashion, particularly hijābī fashion, a growing movement that is increasingly highlighting the questions of what it means to be fashionable, what it means to be American, and what it means to be Muslim.
On April 25th, 2016, Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, in partnership with Mizan and other university institutes, hosted a panel discussion to address this very issue. The panel featured a group of prominent Muslim-American women, telling their stories of how they express their identity in the American context: Layla Shaikley, co-founder of Wise Systems, TedX Baghdad, and producer of the popular “#Mipsterz” video; Malika Bilal, an international news journalist; and Amirah Aulaqi, an entrepreneur and founder and designer of Amirah Couture Inc. The panel was moderated by Noora Lori, a native of Bahrain and Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.
Speaking during the event, Shaikley noted, “Muslim women today who choose to wear a hijāb happen to be the most visible symbol of the faith at a time when the faith is incredibly misunderstood and incredibly misrepresented.” Implicit in Shaikley’s sentiment is that Muslim women are routinely on the frontlines of a perceived culture war between Islam and the West – and not by choice. The mainstream media tells us that Islamic beliefs are incompatible with, and at times hostile to, the modern, secular state. Yet as the population of those who identify as Muslim grows in North America and Western Europe, we are forced to grapple with the question: Can Muslim identity and Western identity coexist as one and, if so, what is the significance of fusing together these dual identities?
Providing one answer is Egyptian-American scholar Dalia Mogahed, Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, who as a veiled Muslim woman presented a TED Talk entitled “What do you think when you look at me?” In her presentation, Mogahed points out that 80% of news coverage on Muslims in the US is negative, with most Americans claiming they have never met a Muslim person. While the wearing of hijāb and other types of religious head coverings is not officially politicized in the United States,1 being that it is not governed by legislation as in countries such as France,2 there are many in the American political sphere that capitalize on the perceived foreignness of the hijāb to promote nationalist and xenophobic agendas.
Further on in her talk, Mogahed cites research that shows that the rise in Islamophobia in the United States over the past fifteen years did not occur directly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as we might expect, but rather in the “run-up to the Iraq War and during [Obama’s] two election cycles.” Fear can be used as a tool to manipulate the public, Mogahed continues, “eroding the very foundation of a free society… Muslims are like canaries in the coal mine. We might be the first to feel it, but the toxic air of fear is harming us all.” In a country that espouses the values of liberty and freedom of religion, Muslim hijābī women have become the scapegoat that some use to support their claims that Islam is an extreme religion that infringes upon the rights of women.
Yet the issue of Muslim women’s dress is not black and white, and contains far more complexity than what is seen on the surface. While many discussions tend to focus on the hijāb as a symbol of oppression, the panel at Boston University emphasized hijāb as a form of fashion and means of self-expression, allowing the nuances of hijābī culture to be discussed in a lighthearted way at a time when, as Lori lamented while moderating the conversation, the narratives of “what it means to be American and Muslim… are more and more in tension.”
With the hijāb often presented as a tool for women’s subjugation, many in the United States assume that all Muslim women are forced to wear the hijāb against their will, asserting that in the United States women can wear whatever they please and thus would never choose to cover their hair. While cases do exist of Muslim women feeling pressured by their families and communities to don the headscarf, many Muslim-American women are proudly coming out to state how their choice to wear the hijāb was an independent decision based on diverse reasons.
For instance, at the start of her TED Talk, Mogahed recalls that her decision to wear the hijāb was a feminist statement against the pressure she felt as a young woman to conform to a perfect and unattainable standard of beauty. Others have echoed similar sentiments, wearing the headscarf to protest the hyper-sexualization of girls and women in the United States and other Western societies.
A cartoon by Malcolm Evans perfectly illustrates this contrast. A woman clad in a bikini passes by a woman in a niqāb, and thinks to herself, “Everything covered but her eyes. What a cruel, male-dominated culture.” Meanwhile, the woman in the niqāb shares a similar thought, though for the opposite reason: “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel, male-dominated culture.” The notion highlighted in this cartoon is that the politicization of women’s bodies occurs in both contexts. On the one hand, women who are forced to de-veil are being “rescued” from male-imposed oppression. On the other, women who are forced to veil are being “rescued” from male-imposed sexual objectification.
Other women’s reasons for choosing the hijāb are less political. The short documentary called “Hijabistas: Inside the World of Muslim-American Fashion” features a group of young Muslim-American women in Irvine, California narrating how the hijāb allows them to express their individuality. One woman noted that the hijāb is a constant self-reminder to focus on her personality and who she is on the inside, as opposed to allowing her worth to be measured by her outer appearance. Still, there are those whose motivation to wear the hijāb is primarily spiritual. For designer Aulaqi, the religious or political symbolism of the hijāb was not apparent when she first started wearing it during elementary school: “It wasn’t because I understood what it meant. My desire to wear it came from love, and came from beauty and a desire to emulate my mother. Before it became part of my religious identity, it was part of my American identity.” These days, Aulaqi says the decision to wear the hijāb is a personal one, stemming from her private relationship between herself and God.
The increasing number of Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf in North America and Europe has led to a burgeoning market for hijābī fashion. In the United States, young Muslims are just as likely to participate in consumer and leisure activities as their non-Muslim counterparts. In her book Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, Professor of Cultural Studies Reina Lewis states that the hijābī fashion, or ‘hijabista,’ movement is primarily a youth subculture, spearheaded by young Muslim women in Western countries. Using social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, these women have played a significant role in the development of new trends, showing that fashion and religion are not mutually exclusive. Fusing these concepts together, the hijābī fashion movement allows practicing Muslim women to fully participate in American consumer culture while still adhering to their beliefs.3 Consequently, mainstream fashion retailers are beginning to capitalize on this growing demand. In June of 2015, Tommy Hilfiger launched a limited edition Ramadan collection. Later that year, H&M featured its first hijāb-wearing model in its campaigns. Most recently, Dolce and Gabbana debuted a new line of luxury abayas.
Perhaps unintentionally, the hijābī fashion trend has also sparked debates over how Muslim women are represented in the United States and other countries in the West. The current online discourse headed by these young women provides a gendered lens for “new forms of religious discourse often regarded as a male sphere of activity. [Recently,] the Internet has facilitated the development . . . of religious interpretation outside of the hierarchies of conventional clerical religious authority.”4
This discussion intensified after the release of the viral #Mipsterz YouTube video, “Somewhere in America.” The video, set to Jay -Z’s hip-hop track of the same name, features artistic footage of young, stylish Muslim-American hijābī women engaging in random leisure activities such as skateboarding, strolling the city streets and having fun with friends. In essence, the video shows us that Muslim youth are just like other American youth. While the video was generally received favorably by those outside of the Muslim-American community, it received some backlash from those within, with some stating that the video does not appropriately represent Muslim women, that it promotes materialism, or that it is objectifying.
Shaikley, who both participated in and helped produce the video, addressed these criticisms in her recent op-ed for The Atlantic. According to Shaikley, her initial inspiration for creating the video stemmed from the widespread misunderstanding of the hijāb: “Throughout the years, I learned that the implications of one piece of fabric could be incredible. I could be seen as violently oppressed, voicelessly submissive, pitifully lacking agency, and naïvely desexualized when not forcefully hyper-sexualized. Overall: different.”5 The video was meant to serve as a creative personal narrative, with the intended audience being the mainstream American public — it was never meant to represent all Muslim women.
Other media personalities in the hijābī fashion world have had to contend with similar criticisms. With social media promoting a culture of over-sharing, these bloggers and Instagrammers can be seen as transgressing Islamic codes of modesty. Fashion blogger Yasemin Kanar provided the New York Times with an account of a commenter who told her to spend time at home with her husband instead of on the Internet. Despite such criticism, Kanar still feels that her work is contributing to the community in a positive way, noting, “These people are mostly from countries where there are more stringent rules about what you can wear . . . But there are so many girls I am inspiring to wear a hijāb, so ultimately I feel like I’m helping.”6
Notwithstanding those who criticize these women for being too “Western” or “immodest,” there exists no universal consensus within the Muslim community at large on whether veiling is a compulsory activity for Muslim women. Some maintain that the wearing of the headscarf is merely based on various cultural interpretations of scripture, and is not specifically mandated by the Qurʾān.7 Others argue that wearing the headscarf in Western countries, where Muslims are a minority, actually causes a woman to stand out, defeating the intended purpose of deflecting attention from herself. There are also those who believe too much emphasis has been placed on the hijāb as a demonstration of piety, and that there are other ways to abide by the tenets of Islam.8
Some Muslim-American fashion outlets have taken note of this debate, choosing to market their styles as modest fashion as opposed to Muslim fashion. The blogger Winnie Detwa originally started her site as a hijābī fashion blog but stopped wearing the headscarf in 2012. The continuing popularity of her blog shows that there is still an audience for modest dress not determined by hijāb.9 Fatime Monkush and Nyla Hashmi, founders of the clothing line Eva Khurshid, do not explicitly promote any religious affiliation, instead marketing their pieces to all women, regardless of faith and fashion taste. Likewise, Covertime Magazine’s primary philosophy is that dress is a woman’s choice, writing, “Modest Fashion is not just for Muslims but for women of ALL faiths and backgrounds. There are women who CHOOSE to dress modestly for many different reasons. We do not judge a person based on how they choose to dress, nor do we judge on the level of modesty they dress.” The modest fashion movement among the Muslim-American community has aligned with similar movements in other faiths, including Jewish orthodox and conservative Christian circles.
What is clear, then, is that religion is not always a determining factor when it comes to dress, and when it does play a role, Muslim women find infinite ways to express their faith. With Muslims making up a diverse body of 1.6 billion individuals, close to 25% of the world’s population, this should not come as a surprise. As Shaikley concisely stated during the Boston University panel, “There should multiple images of who a Muslim woman can be, not just one.”
To drive this point home, our panel at Boston University concluded with a short runway show featuring Aulaqi’s designs for her brand Amirah Couture. The primary purpose of the runway was to bring a jovial spirit to an often contentious debate. Yet the show itself illustrated the diversity of the Muslim-American and modest fashion communities. Among our models were women who identify as Muslim and wear the hijāb, Muslim women who do not, and non-Muslim women who simply have an affinity for fashion and Islamic culture. As Aulaqi demonstrated with her choice to cast a mixed group of models, pieces like these can be worn by hijābī and non-hijābī women alike, and fashion – whether modest, Muslim, both, or neither – is and should always be a personal choice.
MIKAELA RINGQUIST is Assistant Director of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, and U.S. Administrative Director for the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies. She recently completed her M.A. in Global Development Policy from the Pardee School of Global Studies.
 Aubrey Westfall, Bozena Welborne, Sarah Tobin, and Özge Çelik Russell, “The Complexity of Covering: The Religious, Social, and Political Dynamics of Islamic Practice in the United States,” Social Science Quarterly (2016) (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ssqu.12278/abstract).
 Vanessa Friedman, “What Freedom Looks Like,” New York Times, April 13, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/14/fashion/islamic-fashion-france.html).
 Ibid, 243.
 Layla Shaikley, “The Surprising Lessons of the ‘Muslim Hipsters’ Backlash,” The Atlantic, March 13, 2014 (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/03/the-surprising-lessons-of-the-muslim-hipsters-backlash/284298/).
 Hannah Seligson, “A Makeover for the Hijab, via Instagram,” The New York Times, August 15, 2014 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/fashion/muslim-women-hijab-style-traditional-garment-fashion.html?_r=1).
 There is no explicit injunction in the Qurʾān mandating that a woman cover her hair. While the Qurʾān does counsel both men and women to be modest and cover themselves, the scriptures are generally not specific about how or to what degree.
 See Arabs in America Project, “What is the Hijab and Why do Women Wear it?,” UNC Center for Global Initiatives (http://arabsinamerica.unc.edu/identity/veiling/hijab/).
 Lewis, 313.