Does representation lead to empowerment?

Aisha Hasan

Prior to her stepping down over anti-Israel tweets, news that L’Oreal had featured their first hijab-wearing woman, Amena Khan, in a shampoo advert caused a stir on social media this week.

The “history making” decision was (initially) praised as just one of many measures thatibtihaj-muhammad-rt-mem-171114_4x3_992
have sought to integrate minority communities, particularly Muslims, into mainstream branding – from Revlon hiring YouTuber Dina Torkia and Vogue featuring hijab-wearing model Halima Aden, to Barbie launching their first doll in the image of American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Whilst Muslim women tend to feature more in these adverts than their male counterparts, this phenomenon is not limited to one demographic. Throughout modern history, many minority groups have sought prominent positions of leadership or fame in an effort to increase their influence and acquire acceptance. It is based on this idea that Muslims, especially visibly Muslim women, are encouraged to seek out and embrace platforms that will let them be seen by millions as “normal” people, in an effort to defuse hatred and fear.

But does this actually work?

Celebrating the exception

Despite being a regularly toted idea, upon further scrutiny, it’s clear that the idea of representation leading to empowerment has not always produced results. Merely being visible has never served to change public attitude, but has always been accompanied by legislation and active campaigning as to the reasons why discrimination against said group should not be tolerated.

There are many instances where even when minorities reach high public positions, public opinion fails to keep up. A recent example can be seen in former American President Barack Obama who was celebrated for being the first African-American president, with journalists and analysts hailing a new era of history and the end of racism. Yet it was during his two terms in office that the Black Lives Matter movement was launched in protest of the perpetual dismissal of discrimination within state institutions and rampant police brutality. As for a supposed new era of history, one can assess how much of a difference Obama made in public sentiment given the election of the proven racist, sexist, and elitist that is Donald Trump.


The inevitable result of the promotion of specific individuals, in absence of the principles as to why the “other” should be accepted, results in any successful person being seen as the exception to the stereotypical norm.

Rather than humanising the masses, representation allows acceptance of a specific personality and hinges upon the individual possessing certain celebrated traits, approved if deemed the “model” Japanese citizen, the educated Black man, or the conventionally beautiful hijabi makeup artist. Communities are infinitely diverse such that not everyone will be featured in the mainstream; consequently, basing societal acceptance on representation is neither feasible nor effective.

Read: We need to talk about the sexualisation of Muslim women

Additionally, when it comes to Muslim women, there is a clear promotion of a certain segment of this demographic – primarily a hijab-wearing, fashionable, photogenic social media star whose profession usually revolves around their appearance and/or their stereotype-breaking abilities.

The result: Muslim women that aren’t fashionable, that aren’t stereotype breaking, that may be more conservative are relegated to the oppressed, submissive label once again.

So whilst progress has been seen for a certain segment of society who have proven they are “just like everyone else”, this has not changed the fundamental issue: that discrimination should not be tolerated.

An intolerance of values

The case of acceptance in society ultimately boils down to a discussion of values. When the cause of a group’s difference is deemed acceptable, so too are the individuals who practice it accepted.

Take the LGBTQ community as an example: a minority that has faced legal and social discrimination even in secular societies. It was not until recently – 2017 in the case of Australia – that the right to same-sex marriage and adoption has been entirely legalised. Despite popular figures in the music and entertainment industry identifying as gay since the 1970s, which played a role in making their appearance mainstream, it was not until the principle of same-sex relations was accepted that rights were granted. When identifying as LGBTQ was justified as an expression of freedom, rationally legal between two consenting adults, and natural according to science (three validations that form the cornerstone of secular societies), only then was it considered the same as a heterosexual relationship.

Read: My liberal MSA caused me to doubt Islam

Yet, such a strategy will not work for the Muslim community because Islam’s values contradict the bases used to justify differences. Islam does not advocate that individuals are free to act as they please and choose which obligations they fulfil. Wearing hijab, praying, and subscribing to our Islamic duties are not choices we make because we are “free”, but rather out of submission.

However, modern Western societies will not accept “submission” as an appropriate reason for one’s actions, and consequently only Muslims that emphasise freedom (or other reasons) as to why they fulfil their Islamic obligations will be given a platform.

This is evident in the case of prominent Muslim women whose choice to where hijab is always given undue attention, as well as those who say they wear it to express their identity or fashion sense. Similarly, they are praised for their “stereotype breaking” behaviour because it appears to champion the values of liberty and independence from cultural or religious norms. Subtle compromise is endorsed and largely tokenises women, with or without their consent.

With this in mind, it is unlikely that any mainstream voice will be allowed to present conservative Islamic perspectives on issues. Not only will the Islamic perspective contradict the values held dear in Western liberal societies, but it will undermine them by posing an alternative way of life.

So should we just hide in our own communities?

Refusing to be part of the tokenising culture of representation that devalues aspects of Islam does not mean that one must be calling for Muslims to hide themselves away. Rather, the community must be savvy about what representation on our own terms means and what platforms will be useful to take advantage of while leaving problematic ones behind. A case-by-case analysis is needed, considering all possible outcomes.

Muslims must also concentrate on developing their own platforms for adequate representation and not falling into the temptation of watering down Islam for the sake of mass viewership. Our religion encourages hikma (wisdom) when informing others of Islam, not compromise.

Read: Why are Western women turning to Islam?

But our community needs to wake up and view the bigger picture. Islamophobia is not limited to individuals, but also impacts state policies that won’t be overturned by Muslims being featured in an advert for makeup or winning a sporting award.

Strategies like Prevent in the UK and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the U.S. arguably affect a greater proportion of Muslims than individual Islamophobic incidents, yet they receive considerably less attention. This is an issue that representation will not solve; rather, a debate on why such policies are implemented is needed to challenge this narrative.

Finally, we need to encourage our communities – and our young people in particular – to not draw their strength from seeing their faces in the media or the Internet. We need to harness and bolster our own strength, such that confidence in our identity is not drawn from being the same as everyone else, but from being different.

Islam came as strange and will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

15 thoughts on “Does representation lead to empowerment?

  1. What about the “question” of women in Islam?
    Admitting is and may be a “special” issue, considering the abuses and so on that the female gender receives abundantly in every society or, to better define here, in every community of the faithful, far from being an exegete (remember that each Sacred Book -uncompromising and pretentious shared position- needs of these “forms of in-depth study”) and in the absence of a hermeneutic approach, (as above …) I extract some passages from “Mā shā’ Allāh (XXI century schyzoid man)” book:
    “….the emancipation of women, and not only in Islam, is a phase of transition and appropriate absolute need, especially to remove dissolved historical reasons in interpreting the religion of the male form that has sought a convenient benefit for him; confusing in the behavior and accommodating companies of a semblance of justification for corrective Sacred Text the psychological domain practices on women, undermine the message of God (…)”
    The investiture that the woman receives is exactly double (double submission) than that of man and therefore it is natural that man, the male, recognized this effort that makes even this certainly weak against him, has had and has protective behavior, but often this has proven itself and as unfortunately happens today, a formula quite eagerly possessive itself, “pro domo sua”, blurring the female condition of that humanity which has the same thickness of the male in front of the Creator, as clearly and without any doubt it is stated in the Koran Sura number 4 Verse number 124. What must also be clear, is that this will never mean that men and women are equal to or must seek equality in a way which they may wish to tackle the course of their lives engraving it in equal measure and there will not be equality in the behaviors of two kinds freed from those traditions, from those costumes and all those uses that make the companies that have or have not chosen to continue take a differentiated behavior of Faith received in the act of birth (…) As can be seen, there are “elements” in Sura cited in question conjure behavior (nowadays we “summarize and extend” in dress, in performing etc.) that the woman should hold in public, outside her family sphere. Moreover, in every “good family” (beyond Religion!) is commonly accepted and applied to do this, where possibly a hairstyle collection, a well-groomed appearance, but never vulgar or without hoods blackout to be affixed to the head would NOT UNDERMINE THE HOLY SURA. For example, in Indonesia rather than in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the women wear a traditional and light “scarves” very colorful not totally hiding hair but adorns them with a nonchalant demeanor in itself, Countries that together contain more Islamic people then “Arab world”…

    Thanks for support and God bless you all! <– an article on topic
    Please, readers, ask and follow me on Twitter: @MshAllh_theBook


  2. Conservative Islam is a blight on the West. Submission in this tradition is not just a personal ethic of submission but a circle of slaves whipping, beating and if needed killing each other to maintain submission. If Muslims want to propagate such a crude ethic in their homelands, that’s fine. But that won’t fly and should not be allowed to fly in the West

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Forgive me, but what you say is too simplistic, sounds like an ideological accusation rather than a just verification of the events.
      I believe that we should start from a table in which there are equal comparisons and not an accusation that keeps Islam as questioned and not interlocutor.
      Of course, the responsibilities are there, but if we look at the Western Society, the difference is that the West hides and uses them.
      Try to have a look here, thank you!
      [Please, scroll always down to find ENG- text, thank you]


      1. The events I would point to are the effects of blasphemy laws, radical Islamic terrorism, and violent homophobia to have a few. All of these exist because there is a belief in a strain of Islam that you have to not only submit yourself but force others to submit, and any worldly price to do so, is acceptable

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I do not want to contradict you because “events” are always available (in every society, Islamic, non-Islamic etc.) and, often, we are overwhelmed by these, giving off toxins.

    I do not want to give examples now, but: there are too many, unfortunately, and even recent news is cursed… (I’m not able to stop thinking about schoolboys… audience… and what in the name of Christianity was done over the african-american people, for example…)

    “Forced to submit…” you wrote: correct!
    Read this Surah, please (Voice of Allah!)
    “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.” 2:256

    Think: each of the Sacred Sure is not in contradiction and can not be contradicted; they have had value in the past, in the present and, If God will, in the future.
    The contradictions are all “ours”, human misery.
    What does it mean?
    It means that the responsibilities are of the Communities and the Laws that each Country has given itself are those that must be valid in general.
    It is not a deviation that I mean but, to bring Religion and in particular the Islamic one not to be underestimated and diminished in meaning.
    Of course, we need to study and adopt hermeneutical practices, recognizing the enormous weight that the Ummah (the Islamic Community) has on the shoulders, considering that it is not possible to clergy within.

    For now… I stop myself…
    I wish you a very good day.


  4. Hi I’m a reporter for, I absoloutely loved this piece and want to get in touch with the writer/writers of this article or someone who generally writes for Muslimah Diaries, I want to talk about a few Muslim topics, please get in touch here or email on!


    1. Hi Faima, many thanks for your feedback and interest in speaking with us. Unfortunately the author of the article and the administrative team are not interested in speaking to the media at the present time. We hope you keep reading our content on the site. All the best.


  5. Am I correct that the author is suggesting that the absence of conservative Islamic views in popular Western media, discourse, etc., amounts to discrimination?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s