As a journalism student struggling to find a balance between writing about two completely different passions (fashion, and the Western perceptions of Islam), I often wondered if an opportunity would ever come to combine both topics in one news article. There are countless “how to wear hijab and still be stylish” stories, but I’ve never come across a piece with more depth, one that links the two subject matters in a new and innovative way. Then yesterday, I came across a piece that managed to combine “Islam” and the fashion industry together in one article, but the feelings I had after reading it were disconcerting rather than positive and eye-opening.
Ten days ago, an article by Robin Givhan was published in Newsweek Magazine, and on the fashion page of The Daily Beast, with the headline “The New Faces of Islam.” It immediately caught my attention- it’s not often that a headline with “Islam” is found on a fashion page of a major Western news outlet. Though it’s informative, interesting and well written, something about the story didn’t sit well with me, and I realized for the first time in my life, I was asking myself to pick a side- fashion or Islam?
To summarize the article, Givhan uses the backdrop of the political uprisings in the Middle East, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, to justify how two Arab models have come to represent the entire community of 21st Century “modern” Muslim women.
Givhan writes about Morroccan model Hind Sahli and Tunisan model Hanaa Ben Abdesslem, two young (Muslim) women who felt out of place in their societies because of their height and thin figures. Growing up, they admired models who were splashed across the pages of fashion magazines, but were brought up with the following mindset: “As a matter of religion and tradition, female modesty is expected—not the kind of provocative and exhibitionist behavior the mainstream fashion industry rewards.” (Givhan)
They both are stunning, sultry, leggy and exotic, and are complete with all of the “must have” features of a model. I could go on here about how indeed, modelling is not encouraged in Islam, as it objectifies women, sometimes sexualizes them, and requires them to compromise their modesty. But I’m not in any place to judge Sahli or Ben Abdesslem. For them, and for a handful of other Muslim women in the industry, modelling is about “empowerment, opportunity, and modernity” (Givhan) and if I were to continue to type out my thoughts, I may be painted as a prude, ultra conservative and anti-progressive writer.
I have three issues with this article. Firstly, though it may at first seem like Givhan is writing from a fresh, never-seen-before view of Muslim women, she ultimately (and probably unconsciously) caters to the Orientalist view of the “oppressed Arab woman. ““It’s given me independence,” Ben Abdesslem says of her career. “It’s given me confidence in myself as a woman.”” (Givhan) This may suggest to readers that the rest of the Muslim women in the Arab would feel dependent, unconfident and uncomfortable with their gender, and invokes the all-too-familiar images of depressed burqa-clad Arab women.
“They assume she’s extremely conservative. “In New York, a lot of people are thinking I’m wearing the burqa, the veil, everything.” She recounts how she carefully negotiates modesty and opportunity. She will not pose nude, for example. But she models swimsuits and the other revealing frippery of the runway. It is, she said, just business.”(Givhan)
My second issue with the article is that it labels fashion models as the “face” of Islam. I have absolutely nothing against Muslim women who model, I just believe that the story can easily be taken out of context with a headline that reads “The New Faces of Islam,” a phrase that Newsweek Magazine editors use quite loosely whenever it suits their convenience, as it was also printed back in 2008 to title a piece about rejecting radical Islam:
My third issue with this story is that it synonymises “modern Muslim women” with the modelling industry, when there are only a few Muslim models in the industry. Many, and probably most, mainstream Muslim women from both modern and traditional standpoints would not feel comfortable baring it all (or almost all) on the catwalk or posing in swimsuits, lingerie or even in a maxi dress, and having their photographs distributed internationally in magazine editorials or advertisements.
I like to consider myself to be a modern Muslim woman. I attend university away from home, design clothes in my free time, experiment with nails and makeup, often over accessorize, and have an iPod full of Lil’ Wayne and Lady Gaga. But after reading “The New Faces of Islam,” I feel that in order to be perceived as a “modern Muslim woman” in the West, I have to look like this:
www.TheDailyBeast.com, Alex Cayley for Newsweek; Styled by Haidee Findlay-Levin.