Hijabs: The Politics and Price of Cloth by Reina Lewis


When I was invited to contribute to this special issue on clothing politics, I thought instantly of a piece of cloth that had just gone viral in the media: the pink check scarf worn as a hijab in the H&M YouTube video launched in October 2005.

The headscarf appeared in a campaign promote the brand’s recycling scheme. The dressed bodies of models displaying visible variety of ethnicity, religion, ability, size, age, nationality, and region served as a uniting motif for the promotion of corporate social responsibility. Under the strapline ‘Close the loop’, fashion norms are challenged by voice-over and image celebrating style incursions: ‘wear a hat indoors’; ‘wear a short skirt over 40’; ‘wear a skirt if you’re a man’. The slogan for the hijab ensemble advocates ‘be chic’, modified smoothly into ‘look sheikh’ in the follow up voice-over as the screen fills with a man in the long white robe, or thobe, associated with Arab men in the Gulf (serving also to indicate the privileges of citizenship in a context where migrants outnumber nationals). The film concludes with the clarion call, ‘there are no rules in fashion but one: recycle your clothes’, and an onscreen invitation to donate unwanted garments to a local H&M store for recycling.

I was alerted to the video by many of the hijabi and modest fashion bloggers and social media stars who I had come to know during ten years researching Muslim and modest fashion. Starved of positive images of hijabi women and of fashion media attention, the news that a hijabi was on screen went global within hours.

Religious and ethnic identity as cultural commodity ///

At first viewing I didn’t presume that the body underneath the hijab was Muslim: this is fashion media, after all, where anyone can be anything. Even race and ethnicity – regarded as immutable by some – can be re-rendered through imaging. With a white norm of beauty still dominating the fashion catwalk and media, and reducing employment opportunities for models of colour, it is still not unheard of for white models to be made up in black face (with the inevitable outcry sometimes, one imagines, a welcome form of publicity).

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Mariah Idrissi in the 2015 commercial for H&M / Courtesy of Mariah Idrissi and Stream Line pr.

In the case of the H&M film, it appears that the models are indeed what they seem. There is no visible indication of the religious background of all the models, but for those whose faith, or religio-ethnic, or national, or regional identity is the rationale for their presence, authenticity is not just implied but is also validated by the rapidly circulating coverage on and offline. The casual Googler could quickly learn that the woman in hijab is Mariah Idrissi, a Muslim woman from west London.

I have yet to interview the marketing team behind the campaign, but it is clear that someone involved had realised that not anybody can wear a hijab – or, to put it more succinctly, that authenticity was essential to the success of the film’s concept.

Other sorts of diversity represented included models of different ages, sizes, physical abilities and ethnicity: not surprisingly these all presume a match between visible diversity and ‘real’ individual identity. The model with a prosthetic leg is, one presumes, really wearing prosthesis: this is not CGD. The men models who are wearing turbans are, one presumes, real Sikhs. They all ‘look’ Asian, but do the ethnicity and the religion match? Well, I know personally in one instance that this is so, because I recognised the lone portrait as that of Pardeep Singh Bahra, blogger star of Singh Street Style who had last year spoken at one of my Faith and Fashion panels at LCF about men and masculinity.

Market segment ///

Having argued for the last ten years that the mainstream market is missing a trick in ignoring Muslim consumers, as my book goes into print 2015 this may prove to have been the year that the mainstream fashion industry woke up to Muslim fashion consumers. What started in 2014 with a capsule collection for Ramadan marketed by DKNY in the Gulf, expanded in 2015 with Ramadan initiatives in Britain, EU and North America from Mango, Monsoon, and Hilfiger, whilst Net a Porter also curated a Ramadan collection. With many brands dipping a toe into the water with coms developments rather than bespoke product (re-badging existing products), Uniqlo stood out for producing a modest range in collaboration with British designer Hana Tajima in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Opportunities and challenges for people of faith in fashion and in marketing ///

Both Mariah and Pardeep are part of the burgeoning faith and ethnic related fashion and lifestyle scene. Mariah, active on Instagram, is part owner of Salon Marrakesh in west London, which in addition to the usual range of salon treatments offers mendhi henna decorations and manicures with water permeable halal nail varnish that need not be removed to perform wudu, the ritual washing for prayers. Pardeep, blogger and sometimes model, has a line of Singh Street Style T-shirts and is expanding, as he told the audience at LCF, into tailoring with a line of formal wear for men designed with special inside pockets to accommodate the Sikh kirpan, or dagger. We can be hopeful that this type of mainstream exposure will help not only the global brand that featured Mariah and Pardeep in the film, but also the small start-ups that are designed to meet the needs of minority cultures and to share minority cultural skills with wider publics.

Whilst I understand the pain of being disregarded by the market – and maybe only someone who has searched the entire mall in vain for a barmitvah or Eid card can comprehend the frustration and humiliation caused by the ethnic and religio-ethnic exclusions of consumer culture – Muslims and other minority groups may want to be careful what they wish for. To be constructed as a consumer segment can be liberating and it can have a price. Just as the shift from community to commerce has changed the nature of gay spaces, social relations, and identities, will Muslim women, and other women who dress modestly, find themselves priced out of modesty if achieving modesty through fashion becomes a norm? Will the willingness of the mainstream fashion brands to market to Muslims pose a commercial risk to the smaller companies from faith backgrounds that started the modest fashion niche market. Or will publicity bring them new customers?

We need industry insiders, academic researchers, media commentators, and the next generation of designers and marketers to move things forward for greater and respectful inclusivity. Part of our work at London College of Fashion is support those who are working for change across all these sectors, whether by generating public debate, widening participation in fashion education, changing the curriculum, or advising business. Part of my contribution is to emphasise that policies aimed to foster religious diversity can’t be one size fits all, just as there is no one size religious garment per faith. If we understand religious practice through the sociological lens of ‘everyday religion,’ we can conceptualise faith based practices as both institutional and individual, contingent rather than transhistorical, and as embodied and variable, liable to change across the lifespan of an individual in response to life phases and to external and community developments. We should expect contradiction as normal, not see it as an aberration: women may be in and out of their hijab, women may wear it for different reasons at different times, and certainly they may cover the body in different ways.

This too is part of the politics of cloth; the politics of how we all, whether we ourselves wear the hijab or not, learn how to conceptualise the polyvalent meanings of the cloth on the body and the body under the cloth. Some women wear hijab as an expression of their personal religious or/and spiritual journey; other sport it as a social alibi guaranteeing respectability for family or community observers; some wear it for political reasons, to challenge the securitising demonization of Muslims as potential terrorists; others wear it to please parents or as part of a school uniform. Some women are compelled to cover or cover in ways not of their choosing.

Common among the young generation of Muslim women that I have spoken to for my research is an insistence on the hijab as choice: often articulated in the formula that it is just as wrong to force someone to put the hijab on as to compel them to take it off. Many in this generation, raised in western liberal democracies, articulate freedom of religious expression as part of a human rights apparatus, in which women’s rights to choose when and how to cover are part of an understanding of human rights as intrinsic to Islam. Often based on personal study of the holy texts, young women assert the protection of individual rights under Islam to redefine other practices associated with Islam as cultural rather than religious. Sometimes seen as a riposte to ‘village’ or ethnic Islam, the vision of Islam as a progressive spiritual framework, allows young women (and young men) to challenge community leaders and elders about cultural community norms posed as religious norms.

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Photograph of Mariah Idrissi (2015) / Courtesy of Mariah Idrissi and Stream Line pr.

Research demonstrates that young people rarely reject all community and family practices; like most other young people of different backgrounds they negotiate a set of accommodations. But this trope of young people, especially women, tragically caught between two cultures still prevails: within the mostly positive welter of press coverage, Mariah had repeatedly to counteract the presumption that she had asked her parents’ permission to take part in the shoot. In contrast to the orientalist presumption of Muslim parental patriarchal oppression, this young woman had discussed it with her parents, valuing their opinion and using them as a sounding board as she came to her decision.

When I ran into Mariah and her mum at the Urban Muslim Women Show in London October 2015, where catwalk displays by modest designers were accompanied by motivational speakers focusing on employment opportunities and empowerment for Muslim and minority women in Britain, it was clear that fashion was a shared passion. Celebrated on stage by an ecstatic audience, this was more than a celebrity PA [personal appearance]: framed in the context of advocacy for a female demographic under-represented in the economy, Mariah was collectively understood as both a poster girl for modest style and a new community representative.

Change can be a long time coming, and parts of the fashion industry may be variously resistant, welcoming, opportunistic or confused: it takes a sustained commitment to ensure that all forms of social diversity are put on the fashion agenda and that they stay there.