Muslim Fashion – On the Street and Online
Hijabis of New York
What is variously called Islamic, Muslim, or ḥijābī fashion is not a new phenomenon; it has a history stretching back decades in Muslim-majority countries.
Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to develop a distinctively Muslim style culture, in contrast to the fashions worn by the country’s secular elite.1 As veiling was revived as a common dress practice among the middle and upper classes in other Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt and Indonesia, distinct national Muslim fashion cultures began to emerge. During the last decades of the 20th century, Muslim fashion was disseminated in a number of different media forms, particularly print media.2 Catalogues and magazines increased the connections between national Muslim fashion cultures and helped spread Muslim fashion practices in Muslim-minority communities.3
Particularly in Western Europe, North America, and the wider English-speaking world, native-born Muslim women also began to adopt styles of ḥijāb that mixed elements from the styles of Muslim-majority fashion cultures and Western street fashion.
This new, Western-centered version of Muslim fashion is defined by Raina Lewis as “a form of youth subculture… that defines itself in relation to and distinction from the social and cultural norms of both a dominant or mainstream (and often hostile) non-Muslim majority and parental cultures of religion and ethnicity…” This subculture instead creates a style based on a bricolage of the mainstream secular fashion culture and the “ethnic” cultures of Muslim-majority countries.4
The advent and spread of Internet access opened up whole new categories of media that were quickly adopted and adapted by amateur European and American Muslim fashion stylists and designers. The blog format became a particularly popular outlet for stylish Muslim women to connect virtually with one another and disseminate their personal takes on fashion.5 As a result, a new Muslim fashion culture began to take shape.6 This new form of Muslim fashion culture has three essential components: a basis in Islamic tradition; integration with secular fashion components and aesthetics; and a transnational reach facilitated by the Internet, social media, and the use of English as a lingua franca.
What makes Muslim fashion Muslim, as opposed to secular, is a lexicon of bodily praxis that connects it with the “Islamic discursive tradition” that “addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present.”7 In this case, style and dress practices refers to parameters of female modesty, specifically what body parts must be concealed and which ones may be revealed, as interpreted by jurists working within that discursive tradition.
This paper is the first in a three-part series that will examine independently created Muslim fashion social media projects that appeared online between the summer of 2014 and the spring of 2016. These media items will be deconstructed and compared, with the goal of identifying and describing the transnational fashion subculture of which they are a part. I will rely heavily on visual and aesthetic analysis to demonstrate how Muslim women are using fashion and beauty products to reinforce or transgress the boundaries of the gender binary, blurring the lines between the secular and the religious, the personal and the political.
The three social media projects on which I will be focusing consist of two Instagram accounts and one Facebook page. All three rely heavily on the path forged by the “Mipsterz” music video which was conceived and produced by entrepreneur Layla Shaikley in 2014. The first example I will examine in detail is Hijabis of New York, based on the now famous “Humans of New York” photography project, pairing a photo of a Muslim woman wearing ḥijāb with a short anecdote about her.
Hijabis of New York exists as both a Facebook page and a Tumblr blog, and is associated with the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE). The lead developer of this “social media campaign” is Rana Abdelhamid, one of the founders and the current CEO of WISE. The pictures for the posts are taken by another member of WISE, Jiniya Azad. Hijabis of New York follows a blog format and its content is modeled after the Humans of New York blog. Both Hijabis of New York and Humans of New York typically feature a picture of an ordinary person and an anecdote, either a story or philosophical musings, written in the first person.
I reviewed every Hijabis of New York post, from the initial post published on October 2, 2014 up to that published on February 5, 2016. There were a total of 100 posts in the picture-and-anecdote format during this time period. The majority of these posts feature women from New York or the United States, but the last sixteen posts from this sample feature women from Madrid, Spain (eight posts, two featuring the same woman) and London, England (eight posts).
Neither Hijabis of New York nor Humans of New York can be classified as strictly fashion media, but both are derived from the ‘street style’ photoshoot.8 Street style first reached the masses via the work New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham began in the late 1970s and has since been replicated many times over in newspapers, magazines, and now in countless blogs as well. 9 The simplest definition for street style photography is “fashion photography taken ‘on the street’… produced outside, among the uncontrollable, naturally lit elements of the ‘real world.’”10 By adding the anecdote element to each portrait, both Humans of New York and Hijabis of New York seek to be something more than street style. However, what draws people into these blogs are the attractive and fashionable individuals in their photographs. The posing, the lighting, and indeed the interesting look of the individuals themselves all play a crucial role in attracting readers to both blogs. Anthropologist Brent Luvaas terms this new genre of street style photography ‘realist’ street style, while some mainstream fashion writers have termed it ‘peep style.’11 Both of these terms point to the supposedly unmediated format of these blogs and the ordinary people these blogs document. This glimpse into both the fashion choices and the private lives of others is one of the main attractions of Hijabis of New York.
The major difference between Humans of New York and Hijabis of New York is of course the fact that the featured profiles on Hijabis of New York, as well as the creative directors behind the site, are, with a few small exceptions, all Muslim women who wear ḥijāb. However, there are other notable differences between the two. Not only is there a religious subtext present in every post featuring a picture of a ḥijābī woman; the anecdotes of Hijabis of New York are often explicitly focused on religion. More than half of the anecdotes surveyed touch on the subject, beyond simple statements identifying the speaker as Muslim. A total of sixty-nine posts mention religious practice, spirituality, or use religious terminology at least briefly. Forty-nine posts out of the sample of 100 discuss religious practice more in depth, for example describing lived practice, personal spirituality, and religious holiday traditions. Eight posts use traditional Islamic religious terminology and expressions (inshallah, hamdulilah, etc.) without other mentions of religion. An additional thirteen posts mention or discuss wearing ḥijāb explicitly, but do not mention other religious topics.
The vast majority of the women profiled are young, which corresponds to the typical profile of a Muslim woman who dresses in the new global style of Muslim fashion. None of the women in this sample are wearing identifiably ‘ethnic’ garments like shalwar kameezes (loose pants and tunics traditionally worn in South Asia), chadors (black cloaks worn in Iran and Iraq), or burkas (the combination cloak and face veil, often made with blue cloth, worn in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan), which are more typically associated with the mothers and grandmothers of Muslim fashionistas. All the women and girls featured wear a separate hijab-style scarf wrapped tightly around their head, as opposed to wearing a single head and body-covering outer garment like a chador. None show more than a tiny hint of their hairline in the front. All the women also sport one or more items of clothing that match current streetwear fashion trends. In many cases the entire outfit of the featured individual, including the ḥijāb, has been pieced together from multiple elements that would also be worn by fashionable secular women. Only one woman featured covers her face with a niqab or veil, but her clothes contain elements that could be sourced from a main street secular fashion retailer. Though torso-only pictures and coats often obscure parts of the outfits of the women featured, only six are clearly wearing abayas or abaya-like robes that would be unlikely to be purchased or worn by non-ḥijābī women.
After a few initial posts, on October 6, 2014, the women behind Hijabis of New York posted their statement of purpose for the new blog, reproduced in full here:
“Why start this blog?”
Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a marked increase in the negative portrayal of Muslims due to the tragic events taking place in the Middle East. The ones who have become most victimized by this have been those who are most visibly Muslim.
On 9/30 an Australian Muslim woman was thrown from a moving train. Earlier last month Linda Sarsour, a civil rights activist, was attacked on the streets of New York City. In London, hate crimes against Muslims have shot up by about 65% over the last year. Hijabis of New York is one part of a multifaceted campaign to empower those who are most vulnerable to this hate. Share our page to help us highlight an alternative narrative and inspire the world, one hijabi at a time.
In interviews, Abdelhamid elaborates upon this, for example telling Huffington Post that the purpose of the blog is “to raise awareness, to humanize and diversify the image that people have of Muslim women,”12 and elsewhere emphasizing that every Muslim woman has her own story.13
For the creators of Hijabis of New York, their goal is to highlight the humanity of Muslim women, who just happen to also wear a ḥijāb. However, many ḥijābī women, including a number of those featured in the Hijabis of New York series, feel that their physical and psychological identity is enmeshed with their ḥijāb. The women of Hijabis of New York never mention insecurities about their physical appearance, outside of issues they have faced when wearing a ḥijāb.
The women of Hijabis of New York may seem to be conventionally feminine upon first glance, but a close reading shows that each woman confronts gender in subtle ways. They are carefully negotiating expectations of what constitutes properly feminine behavior as a member of their faith community. One of the page’s most “liked” posts features a lengthy discussion of the pressure Muslim women feel to wear ḥijāb and the fact that Muslim men feel they have the right to judge the modesty of their dress:
It irks me so much how men only see Muslim women in two shapes and forms – the covered (the prized possessions) and the uncovered (the ones who need some work)… I’m wearing pants. Okay. I’m sorry, does that offend all the Mohammads and Ahmeds out there?
Even as the speaker in some ways embodies ideal Muslim female gender performativity, she claims her right, and the right of other women, to subtly, or not so subtly, subvert it.
Over the course of 2016, Hijabis of New York has been profiled by a number of mainstream media outlets. The media pieces that discuss Hijabis of New York and the women behind it put their own spin on the material in the blog. Huffington Post titled their article “‘Hijabis Of New York’ Gives Muslim Women The Attention They Deserve,” and gave it the small subtitle “Finally.”14 This piece features a handful of the best pictures from the blog, most enlarged significantly from their original size. The pictures have small, grayed out quotes from the posts as captions. The effect is to emphasize the appearance of the women featured, over their personal stories. This is typical of the format of online articles about Hijabis of New York. There is at least one example where this is not the case,15 but overall the articles about Hijabis of New York disproportionately emphasize the visual.16 Not only are the featured images oversized, but the articles themselves devote much more prose to the photographs, and the appearance of the women in them, than to any personal or demographic information about the individuals. Even when ostensibly discussing the diversity of ḥijābī women, Abdelhamid herself falls into emphasizing the visual. She told a blogger for PBS Newshour’s “Art Beat” that “You’re going through the pictures and you see how many of these women are really successful, have all these ambitions or have their own stories.”17 Here Abdelhamid implies, whether she intended to or not, that the reader of the blog understands that Muslim women are successful individuals with diverse personal experiences from their pictures alone.
Those articles that do discuss the content of the individual anecdotes deemphasize the clear religious tone of the blog.18Village Voice tells their readers that “Some of the questions featured on the page do deal with Islamic faith, devotion, and (naturally) the hijab, while others read like something one might ask any stranger on the street, regardless of religion or cultural background.”19
The news articles also pick up on Abdelhamid’s use of the words “diversity” and “diversify” when describing the blog and its purpose. International Business Times titled their story about the blog “‘Hijabis Of New York’ Blog Highlights The Diversity Of Muslim Women.” The article goes on to assert that
…the women featured in “Hijabis of New York” come from all walks of life. Some are students, some are professional, some are mothers. Their stories highlight how different women who wear hijabs are – in ethnicity, background, education, age and profession.20
These articles walk the line between complicating stereotypes about Muslim women and imbuing Hijabis of New York with the power to speak for, to borrow miriam cooke’s term, the “Muslimwoman,” the generalized Muslim female experience, created by outsiders, that subsumes “national, ethnic, cultural, historical, and philosophical diversity.”21 Hijabis of New York does, to a certain extent, portray a variety of Muslim female experiences. However, to designate any one source as an authentic portrayal of Muslim women will inevitably sideline other, equally valid, voices, experiences, and points of view. The diversity of the voices and media that make up the online world of Muslim fashion drives this point home. Hijabis of New York presents one vision of the lifestyle of the modern Muslim woman, projected through a secular framework. The next piece in this series will examine Hijarbie, which similarly presents a Muslim twist on secular culture, but through a very different medium.
CLAIRE SADAR is a freelance writer and journalist based in Boston. She holds an M.A. in Religious Studies from Boston University, where she focused on the intersections of religion and politics in Turkey. She is a co-editor for the online magazine Muftah.org, which strives to highlight a diverse array of voices from the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.
 Rustem Ertug Altinay, “Sule Yuksel Senler: An Early Style Icon of Urban Islamic Fashion in Turkey,” in Emma Tarlo and Annelies Moore (eds.), Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 107.
 Reina Lewis, Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 22-23.
 Ibid., 115.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 246.
 Heather Marie Akou describes it as an online-based Islamic “Macroculture”; see “Building a New ‘World Fashion’: Islamic Dress in the Twenty-first Century,” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 11 (2007): 403-421.
 This is Talal Asad’s oft-quoted definition of Islamic tradition. See “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” Qui Parle 17 (2009): 1-30, 20.
 Brent Luvaas, Street Style: An Ethnography of Fashion Blogging (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 294.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 295.
 Antonia Blumberg, “‘Hijabis Of New York’ Gives Muslim Women The Attention They Deserve,” Huffington Post, January 19, 2016 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hijabis-of-new-york_us_569e84d2e4b04c813761a629).
 Alexandra Sarabia, “Meet the Women of ‘Hijabis of New York,’ PBS Newshour, February 4, 2016 (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/meet-the-women-of-hijabis-of-new-york/).
 Blumberg, “‘Hijabis Of New York’ Gives Muslim Women The Attention They Deserve.”
 Kristina Rodulfo, “How ‘Hijabis of New York’ Is Shattering Stereotypes About Muslim Women,” Elle, December 29, 2015 (http://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/g27472/hijabis-of-new-york-empowering-muslim-women/).
 E.g., Nadia Bintoro, “‘Hijabis of New York’ Aims to Combat Hate Crimes Against Muslim Women,” Brilio.net, February 16, 2016 (https://www.brilio.net/en/figure/hijabis-of-new-york-aims-to-combat-hate-crimes-against-muslim-women-hijabis-160215p.html); Jackson Connor, “Meet the Empowering Woman Behind Hijabis of New York,” Village Voice, January 12, 2016 (http://www.villagevoice.com/news/meet-the-empowering-woman-behind-hijabis-of-new-york-8125699); Ismat Sarah Mangla, “‘Hijabis Of New York’ Blog Highlights The Diversity Of Muslim Women,” International Business Times, January 14, 2016 (http://www.ibtimes.com/hijabis-new-york-blog-highlights-diversity-muslim-women-2265846); Elisa Meyer, “‘Hijabis of New York’ Photos Highlight the Successes of Muslim Women,” World Religion News, January 31, 2016 (http://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/islam/hijabis-of-new-york-photos-highlight-the-successes-of-muslim-women); “Hijabis of New York: Fighting Stereotypes by Being Themselves,” The New Arab, January 19, 2016 (https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/society/2016/1/19/hijabis-of-new-york-fighting-stereotypes-by-being-themselves ); Sarabia, “Meet the Women of ‘Hijabis of New York’”; “Hijabis of New York Photo Project Seeks to Combat Hate Crimes Against Muslim Women,” Women in the World, New York Times, January 13, 2016 (http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/01/13/hijabis-of-new-york-photo-project-seeks-to-combat-hate-crimes-against-muslim-women/ ).
 Sarabia, “Meet the Women of ‘Hijabis of New York.’”
 E.g., The New Arab’s “Hijabis of New York: Fighting Stereotypes by Being Themselves.”
 Connor, “Meet the Empowering Woman Behind Hijabis of New York.”
 Mangla, “‘Hijabis Of New York’ Blog Highlights The Diversity Of Muslim Women.”
 miriam cooke et al., “Roundtable Discussion: Religion, Gender, and the Muslimwoman,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24 (2008): 91–119, 91.