The Intercept: The mix of hijabs and high fashion do Muslims no favor

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In this age of bare-bones journalism, a number of private investigative websites have sprung up to report on news that’s important to their owners. One is The Intercept, an online news site dedicated to “adversarial journalism” and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Such sites tackle education, politics, the environment and more — but surprisingly not religion, even though huge percentages of Americans are involved in some kind of faith. Recently, The Intercept made its religion debut with a piece on Islamic fashion and its relation to capitalism.

Its main point was that although the hijab and the flowing robes of the Saudi abaya may be glamorized on the world’s catwalks, actual women who wear them are vilified.

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.

Then comes an utterly clueless paragraph.

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.

Now when has Gucci, Prada, Nike, Gap or all the other brands out there ever had a moral imperative? It’s all about money, always has been and The Imperative is surprised by this?

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.

You can get these folks aren’t targeting the 50-and-up crowd.

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.”

The hope is that Islamic wear will become normalized to the point that Muslim women won’t have to endure a diet of taunts and threats that are already out there.

The article then changes tack to complain that fashion spreads typically portray only rich, fair-skinned hijabi women.

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.

I would like some statistics on that last assertion, as homosexuality in certain overseas Islamic climes is punishable by death.

Fashion doesn’t market to the exceptions to the rule. It seeks out the greatest amount of practitioners and tries to get them to buy clothes. So why would it market hijabs to those who don’t wear them? Or why market expensive clothes to those who can’t afford them?

As for black Muslim women, who hasn’t heard of the Somali supermodel Iman? Stop the pity party, people.

Then the article approaches the absurd:

The fetishization of the hijab descends from decades of stereotypical images that have been used to fortify imperial projects in the Middle East and Islamophobic policies and attitudes at home. U.S. meddling in Muslim-majority countries and the war on terror have been the political backdrops against which retailers and advertisers have commodified Muslim women and their clothing.

The U.S. meddled in Muslim majority countries after 19 terrorists, mostly from Saudi Arabia and back by the Taliban in Afghanistan flew three jets into skyscrapers and the Pentagon and crashed a fourth into a field in western Pennsylvania. The article argues that Americans then created an idea of the subjugated Muslim woman forced to wear a hijab to push their ideas of empire.

One wonders if the writer of this piece has spent much time in, say, Iran, where one is forced to wear a chador whether you want to or not and that many Saudi women hate having to wear the omnipresent black abaya.

The article tries to hit every base possible, concluding by saying that Islamic fashion ignores how badly Third World Muslim seamstresses — who are sewing the textiles for this industry — suffer in places like Bangladesh. But what about Vietnam, an emerging textile power? If anything, those women are Buddhists. So much for that theory.

I appreciate all research in this piece but there’s too much effort to make it all fit an Islamophobic-shaped hole. Whether it’s the titans of the industry in Paris or the luckless women tied to sewing machines in southeast Asia, there’s not an anti-Muslim intent here. The fashion industry wants to make money. Muslim women, who have been underserved in the past, are coming into their own and buying nice stuff.

And there are plenty of Muslims who seem happy about this trend. Check out the Facebook page of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council. Its founder, Alia Khan, is the woman pictured on the inset photo for this blog.

Don’t make that into a statement about hijabs and high fashion as dual agents of the American empire. U.S. colonialism may have its faults but making veils into something with a price tag isn’t one of them — or this article didn’t prove that with facts.

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