Modernizing Modesty: the Hijab and Body Image

Photo: Ranoush (cc) Illo: Rob Beschizza

Recent trends in Hijab fashion modernize a form of modest dress once defined by local traditions. In seeking self-expression, however, Muslim women find themselves targeted by a media industry with its own taste for female objectification.

"It's two-sided," says Aisha Ahmad, 30, a health care administrator from Ft. Lauderdale. "On the one hand, it's nice to see that we can achieve a 'high fashion' look while still wearing hijab. On the other hand, it puts you right back in the same place. … Not all of us look like these models, nor will we ever look the way they do."

Hijab refers to modest dress in general and head-covering in particular. The Islamic requirement is to loosely cover all but the face, hands and feet, avoiding sheer angles and revealing little of the body. Across the world, local variations on this theme prevail: the long Abaya gowns of the Gulf region, the Jilbab in Syria and Jordan, and the Burqa in Afghanistan. In Iran, there is the Chador.

But as new generations of Muslim women came of age, they found ways for hijab to complement, rather than stymie, a growing desire for self-expression. And with them came a new breed of designer and entrepreneur—many of them women—whose specialization in "hijab fashion" came to prominence in the mid-2000s.

As a result, muslim women now have more to choose from, with mainstream retailers producing maxi dresses and maxi skirts which Muslim women adore: long and loose and perfectly in line with the latest trends. It's even made modestly itself fashionable: able to express themselves creatively with it, more Muslim women now say they do or want to wear hijab.

Designing and selling clothing that breaks the stereotype of drab Muslim clothing, however, has a tricky side.

Turkey, one of the first Islamic countries to have "hijab fashion shows", fills the catwalks with models in from nearby European countries. Marketing often highlights a peculiar combination of physical attributes all-too familiar to Western fashionistas and critics alike. Advertising targets a nascent market from every glowing screen.

In an ironic twist, Hijab-wearing Muslim women are falling prey to the same thing their choice of garb ostensibly protects them from: a relentless bombar of distorted female body images.

"I feel that women may be encouraging it.," said Inaya Shujaat, who converted to Islam more than 12 years ago. "When we have female celebrities whose only accomplishments are being hot or gorgeous, I wonder what sort of message that sends. We are living in the post Women's Liberation era, yet I feel that women are being portrayed in a more negative way today."

Shujaat likes the idea of hijab fashion, but takes issue with the polarizing choice, between the new and the old, which has emerged.

"I don't like that it seems to be appropriate only for one particular age group and dress size," Shujaat said. "I am a 36 year old mother of two. I do not wish to dress like a 21 year old college student, nor do I have the body of a 21 year old college student. Hijab fashion needs to be all-inclusive, bearing in mind that Muslim women come in many shapes, sizes, ages, etc. It really irritates me that I basically have two choices when it comes to hijab fashion: ethnic, or trendy. There is no in-between."

Like Ahmad, Woro Hapsari sees benefits both in hijab fashion and Muslim women flexing their marketing muscle. Moreover, Hapsari, who works for Nokia Siemens Networks in Indonesia, said she doesn't necessarily feel like she has to live up to the image set by models: "Yes it affects me, but not as much now since I wear a hijab. You can say that now those models influence me to look healthy and to dress nicely but still in modesty."

As the whirlwind of fashion marketing grows, however, so does a new pressure to conform.

"I often struggle to find that balance in my work attire when I compare my look to what I see on TV, print ads, and in the stores," Ahmad said. "Being pretty and thinner than I am are always on my mind. Whether I want to admit or not, I take cues from what I see in the media as what I should look like and then find myself buying accessories to look like what I see in the media."

In particular, Muslim women say the use of tall caucasian models to market fashionable hijab is misleading: the products look amazing on the clothes horses, and less so on average women. Plus ca change.

"Instead of making women feel proud of their Muslim identity they make women feel like they should try to imitate and look like the these models," said Sarah Gil, a 20 year-old fashion, marketing and design student in Bogota, Columbia.

Gil decided to wear hijab as a way to honor her Muslim identity and to escape the "scrutiny" of other women.

While encouraged by the choice and satisfied with her "hijabi skin", she still feels critical of herself and fears that it's not enough to protect her from the relentless marketing of body images: "I think the media portrays women as nothing more than a tool to draw attention … there is nothing positive about that."

Jana Kosaibati, hijab fashion blogger and medical student, said these companies are simply trying to live up to the standards of advertising that mainstream companies use, because they feel consumers want that.

"Even within the hijab and Islamic fashion market, there is a large variation in the type of advertising they use," Kosaibati said. "Many will not show models' faces, and some won't even use models at all. If a company chooses to use glammed-up models, I don't think this is misleading. Most consumers are savvy enough to look beyond the adverts."

Kosaibati added, though, that it would be refreshing to see more effective, creative advertising that did not simply look like glossy magazines with the addition of headscarves: "hijab fashion companies have a great opportunity here to showcase women of different shapes, sizes, ethnicities and ages, if they do choose to use models. … they [could] make their clothing feel a lot more accessible and wearable for all women, and this helps to counteract the negative messages that mainstream advertising may be sending out."

Whether from a secular or religious standpoint, women in Islamic culture are finding that self-expression comes hand-in-hand with how their bodies are represented in the media and by the international fashion industry. While it's good to see more options for Muslim women who want to dress modestly, I've concluded that as long as we put our beauty and bodies first, we will never be happy.

That said, it would be refreshing to see more professional models who look more like the rest of us. After all, we are the ones buying the stuff.