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Visible Muslim Women in the Public Eye.

  • Opinion

Yasmin Elsouda, BA International Relations

A couple of weeks ago Nour Tagouri, a Libyan-American journalist, activist and documentary producer was invited to speak at a New York Fashion Week (NYFW) panel on diversity and inclusion. Sounds great, progressive one might say. But here’s the thing: Tagouri is a visible Muslim woman, she wears a headscarf and her achievements as an activist and journalist not least of which her investigation of sex work in America — in a field that was not designed to include people like her — are remarkable. However, as a visible Muslim woman of colour myself, I am tired of witnessing discussions of inclusion within the limits of the beauty industrial complex. I want to be perfectly clear, this is not a criticism of the veiled women in that arena and not of Tagouri, but rather a provocation that our representation in its current limited form cannot and should not be epitomized and celebrated as structural progress.

If you are wondering why I am so angry, that’s a fair question, I mean we are seeing more veiled women on our screens, billboards and on the cover of Paper magazine with Halima looking absolutely dapper. But seeing Muslim women in headscarves in ads that seek to extract the wealth we represent as a market is not a real representation. Gigi Hadid’s cover for Vogue Arabia is a reminder of that: any woman can wear a headscarf for a photo to encourage our purchasing power. Real representation alters the structures of not only the fashion industry but all public life so that we can participate in the executive decision making that decrees what goes on a magazine cover. There is something deeply marginalising about seeing yourself on a billboard as you are walking down the street and then getting looks of contempt and disdain from a passer-by a few seconds later.

The contradiction between increasing market representation and the lack of structural change is a wider issue in the contemporary dominant understanding of gender issues. It stems from the corporate co-optation of the discourse surrounding women’s progress. A really stark example of this is the belief that by teaching young girls in impoverished villages in the Global South how to code, Karlie Kloss will allow them to overcome all the barriers of structural poverty.

There is a reason why Hijab wearing women in the public eye tend to be young, conventionally attractive and fashion forward and that is because it is an image you can sell. The visible Muslim woman is hollowed out till she is nothing more than that product with a head scarf over her hair.

Again I emphasise that this is no way meant to undermine the work of these women in the beauty industrial complex, it is one thing to criticise the existing state of affairs but it is completely unacceptable to bring them down. Rather, it is useful to think of the progress made as a stepping stone from which future gains can emerge. If anything we are beginning to see visible Muslim women breaking through in politics with Ilhan Omar as the first Hijab wearing woman in US congress and activist Linda Sarsour mobilising the annual Women’s March.

For discussions of diversity and inclusion to be complete, they must include the complexities of Muslim communities in how they treat visible Muslim women in the public eye. I would like to clarify that this cannot be generalised so that one behavioural trait is applied to the entire community. However, it is necessary to point to the level of scrutiny visible Muslim women are subjected to by their own communities. My personal experience as the victim of a hate crime where I was kicked out of a restaurant for my choice of clothing had sparked some people to question my choice of restaurant as they do not serve halal food rather than focusing on the crime that had taken place. More shockingly, when Amani Al-Khatatbeh one of the CEOs of Muslim Girl made it onto the 30 under 30 Forbes list, the community was more concerned with the fact that her forearms were showing rather than the monumental breakthrough her achievement represented. The obsession of religious policing surrounding Muslim women is undeniably gender biased harassment and should be called out for no less than that.

The irony is that both the general public and the Muslim community end up dehumanising visible Muslim women to nothing more than the headscarf. That is the exact opposite of what the Hijab represents and part of that is because we often essentialise the Hijab, which is a way of life that includes wearing a headscarf to just the material covering of the hair. In order to create the social inclusion of visible Muslim women we need to look beyond the headscarf and conceive of them beyond the corporate context. The prominent solidarity between these women alone demonstrates their capability of authenticity in every field of public life.

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