We chose to spotlight a discussion that showcases four young Muslim women discussing their lives, their perspectives, and how they see themselves and each other. They are Asma Uddin, editor of AltMuslimah.com; Nadia Azmy, personal style blogger, and Nyla Hashmi and Fatima Monkush, former designers at modest fashion label Eva Khurshid. The panel was moderated by professor Reina Lewis of London College of Fashion, whose book, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, will be drop in September. Read on for their thoughts about hijabs, the "M-word," and cultural appropriation.
Watch the full video of the panel discussion here. Thank you to The Greene Space, The London College of Fashion, and WNYC for allowing us to republish this text. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On the idea that faith and fashion can go together:
Reina Lewis: "If we had been planning a set of programs on Muslim America 15 years ago, it’s highly likely that fashion would not have been one of their themes. Not only with Muslims, but in general, the idea of putting faith and fashion together would have seemed antithetical to many. At the turn of the century, if anyone had thought about Muslims and clothes in America, they would have probably focused on so-called 'ethnic' clothing or perhaps on the distinctive dress codes developed by the nation of Islam.
"Two things changed that picture. The bombs of 9/11 in 2001 put Muslims in America in an unwelcome spotlight. In response to this, more and more young Muslims began to dress in ways that made their faith visible to observers... [The attacks and reactions to them] led many to seek information about their faith. That for many young Muslim women this involved a decision to cover their heads, to wear a hijab, isn’t surprising. As the image of women in Muslim clothing became hyper-visible in the news media in stereotypical illustrations of Muslims as a presumed security risk, increasing numbers of women began to announce themselves as Muslim through their dress using mainstream fashion to turn stigma into style.
"In contrast to the presumption that women in hijab are forced to cover by oppressive Muslim parents, husbands, or brothers, many young hijabis come from families where their mothers don’t cover. Young women have used personal study of the holy text to justify ways of dressing and behavior that may depart from community cultural norms. As second, third, and fourth generation Muslims born in America, these young people have grown up with American and global consumer culture. Like their non-Muslim peers, they see interaction with the market as part of their experience of religion as a personal, spiritual journey. And this is true, also, for first-generation migrants to the U.S., as it is for converts to the faith. With traditional dress systems remaining a part of many younger Muslim women’s wardrobes — especially for weddings or family occasions — many Muslims in America keep up with fast-changing Diaspora of trends in fashion, as well.
"[It's also] hardly surprising that the so-called 'de-jabbing' phenomenon has been the focus of intense internal Muslim debate, as was the case when Nadia (blogging as Winnie Detwa) shared her decision to [remove her hijab] on social media. The onslaught of criticism that faces de-jabis increases the already prevalent hostility expressed by the self-appointed — sometimes male — online guardians of female respectability, against which women vociferously defend [their] right to choose if and how they cover, or uncover, their heads and their bodies. In emphasizing individual choice in this way, young Muslims (as Leila Ahmed has argued), are 'very much the products of their American upbringing, melding American values and ideals of civil liberty and social equality with faith to promote gender equality and respect as universal Islamic values.'
On the fact that Muslims have $300 billion-plus spending potential:
RL: "Part of our discussion is about what Muslim consumers might want from the fashion industry and to celebrate the ways Muslims are contributing to fashion as designers, creative entrepreneurs, retailers, journalists, and bloggers. And, it’s important to note that the significance of designers and entrepreneurs in modest fashion exceeds [their] often small product [ranges]... Eva Khurshid’s images of strong, modestly dressed women zinged across five continents, despite that the product wasn’t available in all those markets. Winnie Detwa, the 'turban queen,' has spawned a gazillion wrapping frenzies in bedrooms around the world.
"The impact of these ideas goes beyond style, into matters of religious practice and interpretation. And although many participants in the modest fashion blogosphere would avoid claiming religious authority, I do think we can take seriously the potential of fashion and of discussions about fashion as a way in which people [practice] religion in their daily lives. The pioneering generation of creative entrepreneurs who started the high-risk venture of launching modest fashion are now part of a niche market, which by 2010 Bloomberg had valued at $96 billion. With what [Muslims] spend — all, not just modest — on global apparel valued at $224 billion in 2012, and projected to rise to $332 billion by 2018, I think that fashion is going to be joining food and finance as the third F in the focus on Islamic branding, because professional marketers want to reach the youthful and growing Muslim population worldwide."
It can feel obliterating if your faith isn’t reflected on the shelves.
Asma Uddin: “I started the online magazine called AltMuslimah [that is] wholly dedicated to stories and commentary on gender in Islam from the male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim perspectives. We cover a wide scope of issues, such as dating, marriage, divorce, sexuality, parenthood, work-life balance, women’s leadership and space in the mosque (and the broader community), women’s Islamic scholarship, gender roles, co-ed power dynamics, and much more. Just basically anything that falls under the umbrella of gender in Islam. And, of course, that includes beauty and fashion.
“AltMuslimah was born out my personal struggle with my faith — what I call my ‘gender and religion crisis.’ The media constantly represented Muslim women as oppressed. Many women in my community, and even some in my family, were treated as second-class citizens, and my journey of wearing a hijab, and dealing with the hypocritical definitions of religiosity, posed one spiritual hurdle after another during my college years, which, of course, were some of my most formative years. Indeed the hijab, with all of its political, social, and spiritual implications, is at the center of many of my defining moments. As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I found my relationship with God was becoming primarily based on fear, rather than being properly balanced between love and fear. I worried incessantly about being judged by him and sometimes felt like his disapproval was manifesting itself and the anger I sensed within my community."
Many women in my community, and even some in my family, were treated as second-class citizens.
"Now [along with editing the site], I also work full-time as an attorney defending the religious freedom of people of all faiths — both in the U.S. and internationally. And in that capacity, I witnessed time and again legal restrictions on Muslim women’s dress. Whether it’s burka bans, hijab bans, or, most recently in French schools, bans on long skirts. All of this gives new meaning to the phrase ‘fashion police.’ These legal restrictions reflect a deep-seated fear of Islam, so much so that public representations of it have to be coercively eradicated from the public space. And that truly gives me pause, because now this isn’t about our individual journeys navigated by our personal relationships with God, it’s about how the government tells us how best to live out and express our faith.
“Luckily, in the U.S., we see legal trends in the opposite direction. The U.S. government is actually defending a Muslim woman’s right to wear the head scarf in a case currently before the Supreme Court with the Equal Employment Opportunity division v. Abercrombie and Fitch stores. A young Muslim woman, Samantha Elauf, sought a job at Abercrombie in Tulsa, OK, that wouldn't allow employees to wear anything on their heads. She didn’t get the job, because her hiring manager decided that she violated the store’s look policy. Abercrombie described its brand as a 'classic, East Coast collegiate style of clothing. Wearing Abercrombie means styling oneself as a classic American.' But what does that mean for Muslim women? Or religious believers more broadly, who, like Elauf, wear religious garb?”
Fatima Monkush: "We started Eva Khurshid in 2009...but our families met at the local mosque and we grew up together as Muslims [in Connecticut], and we realized that, in the ‘90s, there were things that we could not wear if we just bought them off the rack. So we were constantly complaining to our mothers, and they, being the hippies that they were…"
Nyla Hashmi: “… suggested we start sewing our own clothing. When we were in high school, we both started experimenting a bit with taking existing patterns and altering it and making our own clothing. I even started a side business for prom dresses for girls that I went to school with.”
FM: “My first part-time job was at Jo-Ann Fabrics and I spent all my money there on patterns and fabric, and we actually developed a little bit of a following while we were in school. We got a really positive reaction from girls who were both Muslim and non-Muslim, and it was through that that we had exposure to all different kinds of customers. We actually met a lot of women based in Brooklyn and around the East Coast who focus on a Jewish customer. There was a lot of cross-pollination in terms of collaboration and understanding that we have an opportunity to appeal to more than just the Muslim demographic... And also not pigeonhole ourselves at the same time.”
NH: “Right. So some of the branding and keywords that we used were very specific, especially one of our taglines, which was 'Sexy Rediscovered,' which was provocative, especially being Muslim.”
FM: “It’s sometimes taken out of context, but once you really get down to it, it was about empowering women with how they dress. You can be sexy, as long as you feel confident, and that was a big push behind our marketing. We were featured on Eliza, which is an online magazine focused on conservative Christian fashion... And we were also featured in Aquila, a fashion magazine based out of Indonesia, which actually has a huge international readership because of how fashion-forward they are in their approach."
NH: "We realized that, across the board, there was a need for this particular type of product. It proved to be very successful with reaching across the different categories. So, we were very particular about the imagery that we used in our lookbooks and our campaigns to be not Muslim-specific or something that you would read to be religious at all, because for us it’s about the clothes, and the branding was more of an emotional experience... The imagery in our collections going forward was really just more high-fashion versus religiously based."
You can be fully Muslim and fully modest and also have the absolute beauty and confidence as well.
Nadia Azmy (Winnie Detwa): "I began blogging in 2011 about my personal fashion. It was updated daily and used to share photos of my outfits and tutorials for my turbans. I then eventually started using Instagram, and after my first turban tutorial [when I had] 1,000 followers (which consisted of friends and family), it hit 16,000 followers in merely two months. Winnie became an adventurous and eclectic inspiration for a lot of people that wore the scarf. I was known for turbans and polka dots and bows... I did many styling sessions (my favorite one was with K-Mart). I attended Fashion Week and was recognized by the Arab-American Heritage Council for a diversity arts award. I then decided to stop wearing the hijab in 2012, and I received a lot of criticism from my followers online, as well as some love and support from people that understood what I was going through. It slightly affected my branding, and that helped me rebirth a more personal brand, which is NadiaAzmy.com."
On The “M-word":
RL: “I don’t think shopping is gonna bring world peace, but I do think that paying attention to how young Muslims are using fashion as a form of expression and communication can tell us a lot about individual and collective aspirations, and forms of social integration. And if we start with products, I know that like many brands, Eva Khurshid had women from many other faith groups. Could you say a little bit more about how you communicated the values of your brand? Because, I know you didn’t use the 'M-word' when you were talking to buyers.”
NH: "The M-word being modest?"
RL: "Or Muslim!"
NH: "But mostly modest, in our specific mainstream world. It was a very interesting experience going into launching our brand. When we met our sales rep at the time, she had told us, 'Do not use that word. That connotation is tainted.'”
FM: “'[It’s] for an older woman,' or 'not fashion-forward.'”
NA: "When it came to things like taking off my hijab, I still feel like the conversation’s the same. It’s a very taboo subject. Nobody really discusses it. So many people have adapted to more modest clothing — when I go into J. Crew or Anthropologie, I see their mannequins are dressed more modestly. Even the caftan is what’s in right now."
RL: "Does that mean there’s gonna be less need for the modest fashion bloggers because you can just walk into the high-street and buy it? Do you think there’s still gonna be a role for the style advice?"
NA: "I think with any hijabi — and I can say this because I was one before — we can put anything together with a scarf on. Hijabi or modest blogging will always be something that’s in, because so many people believe in the hijab so much, so I think there’s always going to be people looking for inspiration."
RL: "When you decided in 2012 to stop wearing hijab and you put an image up on Tumblr — and the criticism was hideous and virulent — but there was a lot of support that came through, as well. Also, when you made your YouTube commentary about the sort of attacks that the women in the Mipsterz video were getting (a music video of women skateboarding and dancing) it got such a lot of criticism, and a lot of it was in terms of 'they shouldn’t be representing the Muslim community,' as if there can be one image. For me, that’s what a lot of the anxiety was about, because when there aren’t that many images, the few images there are have to do all the work for everything, and that’s what feeds that anxiety."
RL: "Do you mean about being a Muslim woman or not wearing a hijab?"
NA: "Both. They expect a cookie cutter — 'she wears her hijab like this, pinned like this, tied like this, and she’s either a lawyer or doctor or she has three kids' — so I just feel like we need to have conversations about things like this. And that’s why I did make the Mipsterz video, and that’s why I did feel the need to open up the discussion about not wearing a hijab. I did receive so much criticism when I took it off, but I also received so many emails from people saying, 'Hey, I’m in this situation right now — how do I deal with it?' So I just think it’s about having a conversation about something like this."
NH: "When we were showcasing our line, Fatima wore a hijab at the time and I didn’t. And that dichotomy, that kind of both of us having our own identity... And having women of Muslim faith who wear hijabs and who don’t wear hijabs relate to us, as well as cross-cultural, cross-religion, kind of trying to break the boundaries... And in our interviews, we would focus on even though Fatima wore the hijab and I didn’t, we had the same views on modesty; we shared the same vision on what it meant to be a Muslim woman and also feminists."
On Muslims in the arts:
FM: "[Nyla and I] were in a unique position because we’re both mixed — our fathers are from South Asia and our mothers are white, American converts — and so a lot of people assume that, ‘Well, you’re white, so that’s why you were able to go into art and it wasn’t a big deal,’ but our moms were very like, ‘How are you gonna make a living?’ They had the same questions anybody else’s moms would have."
We need more Muslims in the arts to really represent us, because who else will?
RL: "And I think one of the really important points to make is that this is transmitting internationally... And it’s often seen that because it’s fashion it’s just trivial, but this is actually where a lot of the interesting discussions are happening. But it doesn’t always earn you a living. Very few bloggers earn a living from doing what they’re doing. Nadia, I’d like you to speak a little bit about whether you think the skill set that you’ve developed can be turned into something that’s good on a résumé and something that’s gonna help people get jobs in the media."
NA: "I think when I started blogging, I didn’t really see it being a full-time — let alone part-time, let alone anything… At the time, I was just posting my photos on the Internet. I’ve taken Photoshop workshops, social media workshops… For me, I just wish that my parents would have pushed me to pursue something in the arts that I really cared for, but I can’t really tell the older generation how to act. I wish I would’ve grown around people like [Nyla and Fatima], so I could see, like, 'Oh, these people are going into the arts and they’re successful. I can do this, too.'”
On Muslim modesty as a trend:
Connie Wang: "The fashion industry hasn’t always been very careful or thoughtful when it comes to cultural appropriation. Oftentimes, it has turned to Orientalism as a trend whether it’s pan-Asian trends in the ‘90s or pan-African trends a few years ago. Modest clothing is definitely a trend right now. My question is, as Muslims in a predominantly non-Muslim country, how does that make you feel?"
NH: "I can speak to being in America, specifically, because the struggle we faced growing up was there was no option. So now, seeing that there’s options is great; it’s refreshing to see kind of a wide spectrum of styles out there. I’m not totally a fan of how they appropriate that, but I at least appreciate the fact that they are kind of branching out in the range of how to interpret modesty."
FM: "I think a lot of it is about taking ownership. We’re all dressed sort of similarly with our tunics and pants (a very common Muslim fashion trend). But I know for us, when we were younger and in school, a lot of it started with wearing our South Asian tops, you know, the salwar kameez, it comes with the long flowy tunic that has the baggy pants — it was en vogue to start wearing that with jeans. It was so not a thing 20 years ago. But now, it’s such a common trend."
When the white kids are wearing them — then it’s fashion. And then two years later, it's not on-trend anymore.
NA: "I wouldn’t say what I’m wearing right now is Egyptian clothing… I actually think that it looks more Desi than anything. I just feel like it depends on what inspires you. I, personally, don’t find it offensive if someone’s inspired by my culture. But, like Fatima said, it’s different if someone takes ownership of it. Like, if H&M is like, ‘This is our trend,’ then I’m like, ‘No, that’s not your trend…’”
AU: "It’s great when they’re on-trend, but that necessarily implies there will be an off-trend. And the point at which modesty — as it’s sort of appropriated and defined in the fashion industry — becomes off-trend, then does that mean those who are still dressing modestly are basically old news or wearing something that’s not really in anymore or ‘non-fashionable?’ That has some troubling implications. In terms of this cross-sharing, I’ve definitely seen that. I remember seeing an ad for an Arab modest clothing boutique in London. And I looked at the pictures, and I’m like, ‘That’s basically salwar kameez. Or leggings with kurtas.’ I mean, they looked completely Desi, but it was being marketed as this totally new, innovative, cutting-edge modest look, and I was just like, ‘Well, we had that before.’ But you see it in the other directions, as well. There’s this move among a lot of South Asian designers to basically let go of the two-piece and just design one-piece, long dresses, and I welcome that. I think that sort of sharing of ideas and further evolution of really cool, fashionable ideas is a good thing."
On choice, variety, and having lots of options:
RL: “I was talking to a Muslim lifestyle magazine in 2005, and they suffered because of the politics of scarcity. If you’re the one magazine everyone’s gonna read it, if you’re a 16-year old or a 60-year old. And the 60-year old is saying 'Well, there’s nothing in it for me,' and the teenager’s saying, 'Yeah, but I don’t wanna wear those clothes.' Your average punter can go out and say, 'Am I an Elle reader? Or have I grown out of Elle and I’ve gone onto Marie Claire?' or 'Do I like Vogue? Or do I like Vogue America? Or do I like Vogue Italia?' If you’ve got a variety of media opportunities, if the offering is big, then for any community, that gives you more choice. So it may also be that this explosion is gonna mean that people become more discriminating in which blogs or social media they follow. Like, ‘Well, I’m not doing cutesy-girly, I want professional wear for a thirtysomething.’ So it might be niches within niches now that’s gonna happen.”
The millennial Muslim is so different than the generation before.
NA: "So many people can hide behind a picture, and so many people feel like they can connect and have conversations and dialogues because you don’t know who you’re talking to, you don’t even have to have a face to know who you’re talking to, so I feel like social media and the Internet has helped a lot in this conversation."
FM: "Same. It’s changed so much how we live our lives. It’s just created a larger community."