Words by Coco Khan
Photographs by Olgaç Bozalp
Styling by rita zebdi
In the West, many Muslim women are defined by their head covering. Coco Khan looks beyond the stereotypes surrounding the veil, into the fight for power and representation in a world that insists on oversimplification.
In 2016, the U.K.’s then Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech linking the radicalization of British Muslim men to “traditionally submissive” Muslim women.
The online response was swift: #TraditionallySubmissive went viral as the women of Muslim Twitter mocked Cameron’s statements. (“#TraditionallySubmissive as far as the eye can see,” reads writer Hend Amry’s caption above an image of dozens of hijabi Olympians.) Hundreds—many of whom wore the hijab—tweeted their own accomplishments to Cameron, asking how being a top surgeon, an artist, or a single mother could be labeled “submissive.”
Newspapers from the Guardian to the Toronto Star—and even the BBC—covered the incident. Briefly, Muslim women were invited onto TV to discuss how patronizing and othering the incident was. (Personally, I was always particularly struck by how little it made sense. How can someone be without agency and somehow responsible for a well-funded and coordinated global cabal of terror?) But just as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared—the glimmer of self-expression provided by the media gatekeepers dimmed—and Muslim women returned to the margins.
One person keenly observing the event was Mariam Khan, a writer and editor from the U.K. Determined to keep the conversation going, she pulled together 17 Muslim women writers, activists, and educators for an essay collection in which they discuss their experiences in their own terms. (For transparency: I was one of those 17.) Two years later, she was kicking around title ideas with her publishers. “Someone pointed out that one of the most Googled words around Muslim women in English is ‘burka.’ It’s one of the most recognized,” she recalled. “And that’s definitely not driven by Muslim women.”
And so, despite the collection of essays barely speaking about the burka—with essays instead focusing on topics such as mental health, queerness, and the power of curse words—it was named, It’s Not About the Burqa, acknowledging that in the West, burkas are nearly synonymous with Muslim women and the stereotypes about them.
“Of course I was frustrated about using the word and having to undo or rewrite a narrative about our lives that we never created,” she explained. “But I also wanted to challenge people.”
Though the lives of Muslim women are not just about the burka—or the niqab, or the hijab—it’s clear that many in the West think otherwise.
For as long as I can remember, Islam has been portrayed as being “incompatible” with life in the West. Having grown up in the wake of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, a certain binary has become the norm: West = good, civilized, progressive; Islam = bad, uncivilized, regressive. All personal circumstances and characteristics somehow fall into this good/bad, White Christian/Other binary. For women, that means the more Muslim, the more oppressed, uneducated, poor, and ugly. The more Western, the more intellectual, liberated, wealthy, and beautiful. Fictional portrayals of Muslims cement these stereotypes, often spinning narratives of terrorism or of a hero trying to escape their regressive community. And while reality could refute this one-dimensional portrayal, the mainstream media has not been that helpful. Representation may be part of this problem: for example, while Muslims make up nearly 5% of Britain’s population, only 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim.
While most acts of religious worship are unseen and private, the act of covering is visible. I have often wondered if the Western collective fixation on the burka (full veil where the eyes are covered), niqab (full veil with eyes shown), hijab (covering for the hair, the most common covering), and even the burkini (a full body and hair swimsuit) is an anxiety about all Muslims—and perhaps everyone that is “Other.” How else could I explain the outsized political energy directed at these garments when many Muslims in the West don’t even cover at all?
In 2004, France banned the headscarf from being worn by schoolchildren, alongside other religious symbols and items, arguing that it threatened the secular French way of life. By 2011, it had banned adult women from wearing full face coverings in all public settings (even though less than 2,000 women in France wear them), prompting a domino effect (Switzerland also voted to ban the burka, even though just 40 women there wear it). Shortly after, French municipalities introduced fines for women wearing the burkini at the beach. In 2016, a photograph of French police forcing a woman to remove some clothing at the beach went viral, showing the grim reality of such laws. Perhaps scholar Anna Piela describes it best when she writes that covering rankles and insults Westerners who see the women who wear them as “stubborn refuseniks of the opportunities that the West evidently affords women.”
These women were visibly Muslim—and empowered, successful, and beautiful.
France is not alone. The Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, and Bulgaria have put in place full or partial bans on wearing face coverings in public. Consider the U.K.’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson writing in a column that women in a full face veil look like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” or the far-right Australian antagonist Pauline Hanson wearing a burka to the Senate in a stunt designed to draw attention to her (unsuccessful) burka-ban campaign.
But then, social media came along. Now, without the need of media gatekeepers, marginalized creators were able to take to their phones and express themselves how they wanted, showing the world that they did not live in the extreme of news articles and episodes of Homeland. Rather, they lived in a glorious hybrid, drawn from the Western nation they lived in and their ancestral homeland and its practices. Hijabi fashion and lifestyle social media creators Dina Tokio and Amena Khan joined a generation of other “hijabi firsts”: Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first hijabi U.S. Olympian; Ilhan Omar, the first politician to wear hijab in Congress; Nadiya Hussain, winner of the Great British Bake Off, and as I’d describe her, the first hijabi “nation’s sweetheart.” These women were visibly Muslim—and empowered, successful, and beautiful.
The power of the aspirational hijabi women is something Dina Basharahil, cofounder of hijabi-influencer agency Modest Visions understands well. She recalls the first time she saw Dina Tokio, a British-Egyptian modest fashion Youtuber who rose to fame in the 2010s. “Seeing her was the first time in my life I felt truly comfortable wearing the hijab,” said Basharahil, whose background is African and Arab. “Because I’d battled with wearing it, taking it on and off throughout my life. I loved the meaning of it, but I also loved what I saw in the magazines. And until Dina Tokio, I didn’t know I could merge both.”
In 2017, Basharahil—while working as a PR in a majority-white industry—approached model Fatimah O Al-Amawi. “I was seeing all these brilliant hijabi creators grow their audience but not working with brands. I wanted to be that great connector.”
At the time, Fatimah didn’t have much of an online presence. “I told her about Modest Visions and asked her to run with it. I needed to prove my case.” Through curated content, they grew her audience from 900 to 30,000 in about six months—and now she’s at 110,000.
Since then, Modest Visions’s hijabi creators have worked in campaigns for Estée Lauder, Nike, H&M, and more.
For Basharahil, the key to this success has been genuine buy-in from brands who are ready to address their own biases. “I think many of these companies just didn’t even think about their Muslim consumers or think we have any money,” she said. One example was marketing to Muslims around Eid, an idea she introduced to a group of advertisers. “Muslims are one of the largest consumer groups in the U.K., we have spending power, and Eid specifically is when you buy new clothes.” And by spending power, she means £20.5 billion of it.
But the increased visibility of hijabi women, be it through advertising campaigns or via social media, has not been without its controversies.
When Dina Tokio chose to start covering her hair less in 2018, she described the online hijabi community as a “toxic cult” who were “obsessed” with her.
“Instead of just light-skinned, glamorous Arab women who tick most other Eurocentric beauty ideals, I’d like to see Black hijabis, plus-size hijabis, and queer hijabis.”
“I’m referring to the onslaught of slander and insults I’ve received from a community that I was very much a part of and helped build… all because of my personal decision to basically wear [the hijab] when I want to,” Tokio later described on Instagram.
“This is the problem when you’re the first,” said Basharahil. “We know the Muslim community is so supportive and receptive to a lot of these creatives. But we’re also in a community that doesn’t necessarily have as much outreach and visibility as other communities. So whenever we see a creator, it’s the first time, and people get over-involved. That’s what we’re trying to change as an agency, so it’s normalized to see a hijabi on a billboard.”
Certainly, for the brands who embrace diverse faces, there has been nothing but reward. Whether it’s H&M’s campaign fronted by Mariah Idrissi, Amazon’s interfaith Christmas ads, or 2017’s hijabi Barbie, the praise for brands who lean into Muslim representation has come in spades, from online love to industry awards.
But can the visibility provided by corporations and industries run by white men and the occasional white woman really be trusted as a robust tool of empowerment for a minority community under increased attack, its women fighting misogyny on all sides?
Last year, the world’s first hijabi supermodel Halima Aden announced she was quitting, citing an “exploitative” industry that did not respect her religious beliefs.
“I trusted the team on set to do my hijab, and that’s when I ran into problems, like jeans being placed on my head in place of a regular scarf,” she said. “The way they styled it, I was so far removed from my own image. My hijab kept shrinking and got smaller and smaller with each shoot.”
It brings to mind a line Nafisa Bakkar—CEO of Amaliah.com, an online platform for Muslim women—wrote in our shared book of essays: “Yes, advertising and media has a huge effect on how we view society and its groups, but why has representation in this capitalist machine suddenly become such a priority?”
Bakkar goes on to discuss the fanfare around Nike releasing a sports hijab, when sports hijabs already existed (created by Muslim business owners, who were arguably getting elbowed out by Nike). Not to mention how, though influencer Amena Khan became the first hjiabi to star in a global hair campaign, she didn’t last long. Days after being announced, she stepped down amid backlash about her tweets that criticized the occupation of Palestine. “The message was clear,” Bakkar writes. “We want your hijabs but we don’t want your thoughts.”
“Who gets to draw up the guidelines on what kind of representation is and isn’t OK?” Bakkar asks.
There may well never be an answer to this question, especially given the size of the Muslim population in the U.K. and U.S. (roughly 3.4 million in each)—and how faith, despite its cultural expressions, is ultimately personal, as is how Muslims define themselves (for some it’s about practice, for others about cultural background).
Mariam Khan is “cautiously optimistic” about seeing Muslim women gain more public attention and the world recognizing that their lives are not just about the burka or hijab, while acknowleding that these garments are a huge part of many of their lives.
“I’d like to see more diversity in the diversity,” said Khan. “Instead of just light-skinned, glamorous Arab women who tick most other Eurocentric beauty ideals, I’d like to see Black hijabis, plus-size hijabis, and queer hijabis. I want us to move into a new sphere of representation and not be stifled by being the only one and having the burden of representing everyone—where you can’t ever get it wrong or just be human.”
She’s especially excited for greater visibility for Muslim women in publishing and politics, fields that hopefully can better resist the “commodification” of the hijab.
“Because I wear the hijab. And right now it’s in fashion. But what happens to us when it’s not?”
Makeup Satoko Watanabe Talent director Ben Grimes Production Jasmin Nahar Photography assistants Giulia Frigieri, Bugra Ergil Talent assistants Sarah Booth Makeup assistants Louise Loctin, Clara Retif Production assistant Bahi Emam Special thanks Tesnim Sayar for providing the punk hijab designs, Amber Isbilen, Elçin Hotamisl Talent Leah, Humi, Rama, Khadidja, Hanan, Mariam, Hawa, Anoushe, Radia, Hameda, Aslı, Sema, Emine, Fatou
After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon? We know we need a new future, but what does it hold? What exists on the other side of disaster capitalism and colonization? What wisdom awaits beyond binary thinking and Western views of time and space? What does the cosmos contain beyond life on our planet? For Volume 06: Beyond we are imagining a world free from the constructs that have confined our planet and its people for too long.