Burkini featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and the New
Haven mosque set ablaze last month, Muslims in the United States occupy a
particularly demanding moment in history. As we near the end of Ramadan, we
live at the cusp of both unprecedented Muslim visibility and heightened
anti-Muslim racism. If we are not careful, these new modes of representation
may contribute to the rise of anti-Muslim racism, rather than combat it.
visibly Muslim woman born and raised in Oklahoma, I never saw anyone who looked
like me shown in a positive light — if even at all — in the magazines I stashed
under my bed or the television shows I consumed. Although I still had Muslim
role models I looked up to (such as my mother), I grew up feeling unconnected
to my surroundings.
Representation in Popular Culture
classmates, fed on the same media, would try to convince me that I was foreign;
that nothing was made for me or people who looked like me. Being able to see a
gorgeous, Hijab-wearing Muslim woman of colour such as Halima Aden on the
covers of the magazines I picked up as a kid could have helped challenge my and
my peers’ understanding of who is allowed to feel at home in the United States.
although raising Muslim representation in popular culture is an important and
necessary step forward, it can have devastating consequences if it remains only
skin-deep. Representation must also be accompanied by a rise in unapologetic
Muslim voices and structural challenges to systems that create and perpetuate
major department stores are releasing Ramadan collections and modest-wear
lines, and the media celebrates Hijab-wearing models and influencers as the
faces of fast-fashion brands. But too often, the conversation ends there: Our
representation stops at the cash registers. And fighting for inclusion in the
very systems that require exploitation and even violence against our own
communities is not a step forward, but a step back.
are celebrating a Nike Pro hijab and Mango’s Ramadan collection, we know that
Muslim garment workers in sweatshops are exploited to make these clothes. While
we view more Hijab-wearing women in police departments or the military as a
“win” for inclusion, we ignore the fact that these institutions commit violence
against our communities domestically and abroad.
of Muslim Identity
fight for a seat at the table to challenge white supremacy and popular
nationalism, have we made sure that we are not oppressing our own communities
in the process? Anti-Muslim violence is holistic and systemic; our efforts to
challenge it cannot be surface-level and compromised.
What we are
experiencing right now is a dangerous game of essentialisation: the
hyper-simplification of Muslim identity down to a headscarf. Hijabs become
synonymous with the Muslim woman, erasing the complexities of her identity —
ethnicity, race, displacement, culture and varied life experiences. The
spiritual value of the Hijab is defined and framed by marketers who may have no
understanding of the significance it has to many Muslim women. Brands whose
clothes were made by Muslim women in sweatshops put Hijabs in their
advertisements to make themselves seem “diverse” and Muslim-friendly.
burkini in Sports Illustrated can help to slowly normalise a form of swimwear
that, because of its association with Muslim life, sparks controversy
throughout Europe. But it is a complicated form of representation, given the
magazine’s often sexist take on the female body and its photos shot with a male
audience in mind. The magazine is not one that I would have picked up as a
young Muslim girl in Oklahoma and felt seen or represented by.
really praise Muslim visibility when it comes at the expense of our global
community? Is Hijab visibility worth celebrating if its purpose is only to make
wearing one more palatable to non-Muslims? What kind of representation works to
challenge systems of violence, and what kind makes us complicit?
difficult to deny the value of increased Muslim visibility in popular culture,
especially within a heightened climate of anti-Muslim racism. But that does not
mean the bar should be lowered. Muslims appearing on the covers of and in
magazines can be a step in the right direction, but only if these features
uplift our voices rather than rely on compromised notions of identity. Positive
representation looks less like a Muslim woman in an H & M advertisement and
more like Muslim garment workers in Bangladesh and Indonesia leading movements
to end gender-based violence in H & M’s factories.
politics to fashion, representation is an important component for achieving a
world without structural racism. It is important that Muslims do not compromise
on our identities for the sake of visibility in systems that continue to
exploit us. The choice of how we move forward — and with whom, for whom and at
whose expense — is a decision that we as Muslims have to make right now.
Hoda Katebi writes the fashion publication JooJoo
Azad and is founding member of the clothing manufacturing cooperative Blue Tin