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The fashion and beauty industries aren't historically known for modesty — nor diversity, for that matter. But in the past few years, we've finally started to see some of the top players become more inclusive — and prove, once and for all, that beauty comes in all sizes, ages, skin tones, genders, and religious preferences.
But behind the big campaigns — like CoverGirl's groundbreaking commercial with Nura Afia, the first Muslim face of a mass cosmetics brand, or Nike's line of Pro Hijabs — are men and women working tirelessly for better representation. One of those people is former stylist and designer Nailah Lymus.
Five years ago, Lymus founded Underwraps, the world's first Muslim modelling agency. "I have Muslim friends who have the look to be models but feel like they can't do it while [adhering] to Islamic guidelines," Lymus, 34, says. "They think they won't be able to cover their hair, or that they'd be confronted with their faith..."
Since that time, Lymus' agency has helped place Muslim women (as well as women who don't practice Islam but prefer modest dress) on the pages of The New Yorker and Vogue. While it hasn't always been easy, she's finally seeing her hard work pay off. "There is a lot of attention on Muslim women wearing hijabs [right now]," she says. "We're seeing covered women in articles, magazines, campaigns, and ads. That's had a huge, positive impact on the business."
I feel like I've been waiting for this moment since I was a little girl — the moment when we are in.
But there's more to it than that, she says. "I feel like I've been waiting for this moment since I was a little girl — the moment when we are in," she explains. "People are finally looking at us as beautiful women... I think it's the responsibility of those who have social presence or time in the limelight to give more information and speak to the beauty of the religion. We're getting attention, and it's important we try to dismiss or break down negative associations [around] Muslim women."
Those negative and racist stereotypes are something Lymus still encounters daily in her work. "I was contacted recently for a photoshoot where they wanted to hire a Muslim model and put her in a niqab, which is to cover her nose and mouth," she says. "But they wanted it to be sheer, and they explained it as having this 'Jasmine, Arabian Nights' kind of feel." Sigh.
But rather than react negatively, Lymus used the opportunity to educate. "I explained to them that that wasn't appropriately representing the religion because you're sexualizing the [niqab]. That's like commercializing yamakas in a photoshoot."
Another way to dispel stereotypes, says Lymus, is by getting more hijabis on camera — like Hafsa Abdallah, who is featured in the beauty tutorial above. "My hijab is something that is extremely important to me," says Abdallah. "It's part of my faith... it makes me feel strong, beautiful, and a part of something bigger."
Lymus agrees. "People think Muslim women only wear black burqas and walk behind their husbands," she says. "That might represent some Muslim women — but that's not what all Muslim women are."
While Lymus recognises the fashion and beauty industry's positive strides to better represent Muslim women, she sees it as just the beginning — and warns against the trap of viewing it as a passing fad. "We may be "trending" for others, but [we are not a trend,]" says Lymus. "This is our lifestyle. This is how we live."