Is Fashion's Embrace Of The Hijab Reappropriating Muslim Women?

Dressed in modest fashion and matching her veil to her outfit, Alaa Murabit — whose résumé includes being a medical doctor, a global sustainable development goals advocate appointed by the secretary general of the United Nations, a U.N. high-level commissioner on health employment and economic growth, and most recently, an MIT director’s fellow — is one of those petite women whose energy is 10 times her size. She's powerful, enlightened, and isn't afraid to stand up for what she believes in.

With the current conversation surrounding France's burkini ban, as well as the political climate in the United States (and the growing fear toward muslims and veil muslim women), Murabit's work could not be more relevant — especially to the fashion industry. We spoke to her following her talk at Forbidden Research, where she explored how to reconcile Islam and human rights, and how women's bodies aren't just used as borders of nations, but borders of industries (like clothing production and retail), as well.
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At your Forbidden Research talk, you said that women's bodies have been used as borders of nations. Can you elaborate on that?
"Traditionally, when we look at conflict studies and historical evidence pertaining to the way in which conflicts are deemed victorious and which side is deemed the winner, a huge component of that determination was realized through the rape and the pillage of women. And that is not limited to distant history; the genocidal rapes of Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s and now, the rape of women in Syria. This portrayal has even penetrated our art. In fact, when you look at TV shows like Game of Thrones, conquest is established in that way. But in all these cases, we have to remember that women themselves were often not involved in the fighting or warfare; that as civilians, the honor of the community and the borders of the nation were inherently theirs, that just by being women in war they faced, and still do, certain vulnerabilities."

In fashion, for example, we have Anna Wintour praising Kanye West’s collection as "migrant chic," completely disregarding the reality of migrants, but glorifying their bodies and fashion. We have seen the use of women as borders of nations in many ways: We see the hijab, the abaya, and what Dolce & Gabbana, among other designers, has done to either design for, or reappropriate, the Muslim or Arab woman.
“What makes Muslim fashion an interesting topic of discussion is that it has become such a cornerstone conversation of today, because it is much more common now and the general public is more exposed to this. But historically, Muslim women’s fashion has been very fluid, and the scarf and hijab are actually gaining popularity recently.

"But it is not Muslim women alone; there is an interesting cartoon when a young man sees a man and a woman from their backs, the man dressed in a white long robe from head to toe and the woman wearing a full black dress. The young man yells at the two of them, saying something along the lines of, 'Go back where you come from!' Right? But when they turn around, the woman is a nun and the man is the pope. This caricature portrays exactly that people used to cover themselves across cultures; it’s not something unique to Islam.

"Ultimately, such stereotypes stem from a perception of Islam, rather than a perception of the hijab. The hijab is a convenient excuse to think, Everything we think about Muslim women is true. Everything we think about Muslim men trying to silence women, trying to oppress women is true. It paints a very persuasive picture. It allows for us to do exactly what we accuse others of: silence Muslim women under the guise of being brainwashed, weak, or lacking agency. This way, it becomes much easier (and more acceptable) to speak for them, on their behalf and 'in their interest.'

"Regarding fashion appropriation, I think a lot of people are upset because it is the continued instrumentalization of Muslim women, without their voice and agency driving it. Our fashion choices and bodies have made headlines, we have been called backwards and oppressed and going against the very values of our nations and yet, when there is money to be made, all of that goes out the window. Suddenly, it is on every catwalk and large American and French retailers have collections. We are oppressed when it is convenient and we are instrumentalized when it is profitable. So Dolce & Gabbana, as well as the rest of this over $200 billion industry, continues to make a profit, while many Muslim women continue to feel unsafe walking down the streets. We have to be clear: If companies have the freedom to make those clothes, women should have the freedom to dress that way."

Courtesy Dolce & Gabbana.

Tying in your work at the U.N., what do you think fashion’s role is in achieving sustainable development goals?
“The fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. Part of my work with the U.N. is on gender equality and health. So when we look at fashion, the people who suffer the most in this industry are women, particularly young women. That’s because in places like Bangladesh and China, it is mainly women doing the indoor labor for the fashion industry. These facilities are poorly ventilated, poorly lit, and are often rampant with sexual harassment. So when somebody goes to Forever 21 or Primark and buys a $15 shirt, it might be relatively inexpensive for the consumer, but someone had to pay with their life every single day for it to be that cheap. We have to start being a little bit more accountable in our daily choices. If we want to talk about gender equality and the right for women to have a safe environment, we have to be honest and talk about the production of our daily goods. Where was this purse produced? Where were these shoes produced? Who benefits from this? We have to recognize that somebody’s effort and work went into it for you to have it at that price.”

Let's extend your idea that women’s bodies are borders of nations to industries. For example, how does this gendered conception benefit fashion and further separate us in our ethnicity? How can women become more aware of this? How can it be changed with future generations?
"A lot of what we’ve spoken about today reflects our perception of women, be it in factories where women are exploited for cheap labor, or 'oppressed' Muslim women like myself [laughs], or as national and symbolic borders during conflicts and conquests. At the end of the day, these are all mere constructions by those who manipulate realities to gain and maintain power and influence — victors of war then, corporations, the media, and politicians now — eradicating women’s voices and complexities. Ultimately, we have to realize that perceptions are as tangible as the air we breathe and exposure helps alter this.

"We must stop seeing women as one dimensional. When we paint women with a broad brush, we impose onto them our own expectations and limitations for who they should be and what they can do. We change, we desire, we dream, we fight, we survive. The problem is, across different societies, we deny women the agency to embrace their complexities and contradictions. When we deprive someone of their dimensionality, we deprive them of their humanity.

"Those in power fear what they cannot control. Seeing women as complex, multi-dimensional beings adds variables to the images we have designed for them in an attempt to protect our own economic, cultural, political, and security interests. These images are manipulated under the guise of saving and empowering women, but there will be no true liberation until women are given the freedom to construct their own images of themselves. As women, we must quit deriding each other, comparing our own images of womanhood to those of our fellow sisters. We must know that although our choices may be different, our freedom to choose is tied to one another. And lastly, we must demand that our leaders see complexities as strengths instead of liabilities and understand that the only way to find peace in a complex world is to find peace in the complexities of the women living in it."
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