The news hit the headlines last week. British department store Debenhams is to feature the Islamic clothing line Aab. Other than those of the far right, who claimed this is part of some ploy for Islam to take over Europe, most people reacted positively at the news, arguing that this will make Islamic clothing more accessible to those who wish to wear it. There is also the argument that increased representation of Muslims in the fashion world will work against those who desire to construct Islam as something alien, and highlight how underneath the veil, there are real women.
This is the latest in a series of steps taken over the past few years that have integrated Muslim women’s clothing into mainstream fashion. Whether it was Dolce and Gabbana launching their Ramadan collection of abayas in 2016, H&M hiring a hijabi model, the numerous hijabi youtubers that have set up their own businesses, Islamic fashion shows or even the 2013 viral Mipsterz videos that drew attention to the upcoming generation of Muslim women, the idea of “Islamic fashion” is not unsurprising.
Yet this attention and more positive coverage of Muslim women’s dress has come at a cost.
Firstly, it is hardly a secret that the hijab has changed. We’ll save the details of what the Muslim woman’s dress-code actually consists of for another day, but safe to say, the guidelines of the headscarf (khimar) and the outer abayah/jilbab have been laid out for us in the Islamic texts. Its not about wearing all black, its about adhering to the Quranic specification, the Islamic definition of modesty. Modesty itself is a relative term. In a nudist colony, a bikini would be considered modest. And that’s why Allah (swt) has specified what modesty is, and it includes the headscarf and an outer garment that is loose, opaque and covering. Many of the clothing marketed explicitly as Islamic do not fit that definition.
But more broadly, we must recognise that the idea of fashion works against what Islam seeks to create. In the 21st century, it is undeniable that the pressure upon women to look a certain way, whilst always subliminally present, has never been greater. In a globalised world revolving around pop culture and celebrities, with social media reinforcing societal standards at every turn, it is impossible to escape the emphasis on image. With studies emerging everyday, linking selfie taking to decreased self-esteem, the normalisation of plastic surgery and the rising statistics we’ve seen in the past decade of young women (and now men) with eating disorders, the fashion and beauty industry have to take a large part of the responsibility for these phenomena.
But this is unsurprising, and a sacrifice these industries are happy to make. Under a capitalist doctrine where everything is about making money, this has created a market driven standard of what constitutes beauty, and it is this look which is glamorised such that the multibillion dollar fashion and beauty industries have amassed a fortune off the backs of women’s insecurities.
So given this reality, why are we expected to rejoice at Muslim women now being tied to this exploitative system? For this is ultimately a strategy to capitalise on the Muslim market. The upcoming generation of Muslims in the West are wealthier than their parents, and relatively untapped in regards to demographic specific products. So it is unsurprising that the standards of hijab have fallen when it comes to “modest” fashion wear; these businesses are primarily governed by popular demand, not the Islamic specification. Is it not also a bit suspicious that whilst the media & Western governments are intolerant of the niqab and forms of hijab they view as “extreme” and contrary to their values, they are happy to promote “Muslim fashion”? Clearly there is some benefit they wish to derive from this promotion, rather than an attempt at endorsing real diversity.
But again, the idea of Muslim fashion, as an industry, goes against the very nature of what the hijab came to achieve; to ensure that women are not judged on their external appearance, but on their capabilities. By covering a woman’s hair and body, it takes her sexuality out of the public sphere and reserves it for those she chooses to reveal it to in her private life. This leaves nothing left for others to judge her by expect what she says and what she does, and today, leaves big businesses unable to control her by exaggerating her insecurities and then posing their products as the answer to her lack of confidence.
Even if we look at the perceptions we hold of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (saws), it is both interesting and important to note that how externally beautiful (or well dressed) they were does not dominate our knowledge about them. Rather we know of the great charity that Zaynab (ra) gave, the sheer number of hadith Aisha (ra) knew, and the humble wisdom of Umm Salama (ra). It is their character and contributions towards Islam that we primarily remember them for.
But how can this be achieved if we create an industry that tells women what is suitable to wear and what isn’t, according to the fashion designed by other people? The hijab should prevent us from succumbing to such expectations, but now sisters put on the hijab & still have a beauty image to live up to. Sometimes Muslim women even feel like that they have to compensate for the fact that their hair is covered, by being even more fashionable, wearing even more makeup. As Muslims we have created a culture where you’ll find the makeup tutorials and OOTD details next to the hijab tutorials. The two have become intertwined and sisters have the pressure to live up to two unattainable standards of beauty; the Western, and now the Muslim.
Does this mean Muslim women must only ever wear black from head to toe? No, the sharia does leave some room to ensure the Muslim woman’s dress-code is practical and that she can take pride in her appearance and make it personal to her. As a community, we also do need shops that cater to Muslim women’s needs. But there is a difference between selling and buying nice clothes, and creating a culture of changing fashion trends to subscribe to and having to face all the insecurities that brings. And unfortunately, this is the direction we see things heading today.
We have to reclaim the meaning of hijab and refuse to let it be used just as part of a business strategy. This is an act of worship we strive to do with full sincerity, to mark our identity as Muslim women that seek to please our Lord, not succumb to society’s definition of fashionable.
Superficial beauty is not the Muslim woman’s concern; her main goal is inner spiritual beauty though attaining taqwah. She does not have to use her body and charms to get recognition or acceptance in society. This is the beauty of hijab, and we should never shy away from admitting that.
 The Quran; Surah Nur verse 31, Surah Ahzab verse 59