The Marketable Muslim Fashionista

January 28, 2016

H&M’s first hijabi model was an online hit, but does commercialized diversity really push the frontiers of equality?

Fashionably Muslim? This screenshot shows Mariah Idrissi in the H&M video campaign. Photo credit: H&M

Fashionably Muslim? This screenshot shows Mariah Idrissi in the H&M video campaign. Photo credit: H&M

When the second largest clothing retailer in the world, H&M, launched their ‘conscious clothing line’ with a video campaign this fall, they seemed to have won the hearts and minds of young social media users. Not so much because of the bombastic eco-friendly message, which stated that “There are no rules in fashion but one: recycle your clothes”. Instead, the two seconds that sparked the video to go viral was a brief scene of model Mariah Idrissi (23) wearing oversized shades and stepping into the public street with a hijab draped around her head.

Who are the Hijabis?

Young women who wear hijab and try to dress in accordance with Islamic ideals of modesty often refer to themselves and each other as hijabis. The trend can be described as part religious practice (embodying religious ideals in your dress and behaviour as a way of bettering yourself, bonding with women who share your interests and seeking to influence how others practice Islam) and part fashion trend. While calling any kind of hijab-wearing a fashion trend is controversial, it is obvious from the growing number of blogs and Instagram accounts that many young women spend a lot of time and effort incorporating their hijabs into fashion-forward styles, creating a sort of alternative appropriation of the shifting fashion trends. The hashtag #hijabfashion has been used over 4 million times by Instagram users. 

In the virtual hijabi community, Muslim girls can look to Instagram to find inspiration for modest and fashionable outfits or to YouTube for instructions on how to style their hijab. Naturally, a large market also caters to these young women as consumers. Major Western companies are only now beginning to tap into its potential. For example, luxury brands as well as commercial companies like Zara have launched “Ramadan lines” ahead of the Muslim celebration which, like Christmas celebrations, prompts the demand for an updated wardrobe.

Chic Conversation Starter

While we may love or hate the game of trends and fashion, one function of the fashion industry will always be to produce differences even where none exist. Brands and fashion houses create demand by making us believe that this year, that pastel pink sweater is more desirable than the grey one, and that what we wear says something significant about who we are. But can the market-oriented pragmatism of global fashion companies also eliminate some differences between us?

By featuring a hijab-wearing model for the first time, H&M made a symbolic move to normalize hijabis as consumers and wearers of their fashion. When social media users proceeded to share the message, the symbol of a hijabi model was infused with meaning and made powerful. In an enthusiastic opinion piece on, one commentator noted: “Mariah Idrissi  didn’t just model for an ad campaign, she awakened the people. In a simple and quiet way she made others look at a Muslim woman without fear or contempt but with a healthy curiosity. Maria opened a conversation that has always been strained.” The embrace by mainstream consumerism was welcomed because it subtly denied that religious differences should limit the individual subject and how we perceive her.

Similarity Takes the Spotlight

Can this kind of “healthy curiosity” and recognition be advanced on the back of commercial interests? The hijabi fashion trend may be shifting the meaning we ascribe to the hijab as a cultural marker, by which hijabis are identified as a particular group. Media representations of Muslim women looking casually chic in their hijab can influence consumption, as it is primarily intended to, but it can also open up new opportunities for Muslim women to be seen with new eyes and offer a non-essentialist perspective on Muslim identity. Highlighting the style or skills of individual Muslimas that blend well with mainstream ideals of modern living allow viewers to pay more attention to the similarities between majority and minority, which are often under-mediated.

This Hijab Was Brought To You By H&M

Does that mean that we can expect commercial companies to be the avant-garde of redefining equality? H&M would not sponsor this small recognition of stylish hijabis if it wasn’t as commercially savvy as it is inclusive. The genius of its execution let H&M reach two aims at once. Firstly, as a figurehead of Muslim girls who wish to be included in the feminine norm, Idrissi struck home with the Muslim market simply by looking modestly flawless and on-trend. Her appearance let potential H&M customers identify with a feminine ideal which is different from the promiscuous Carrie Bradshaw-type, and welcomed these girls into the H&M fold. Secondly and more broadly, the ad also appeals to a progressive young audience of all faiths and colors who appreciate the underlying message of inclusion and individuality.

Idrissi’s two seconds of fame do not necessarily tell us that H&M is especially willing to expand the criteria for inclusion in the fashion world or overcome divisive stereotyping. Mariah Idrissi in hijab and pink lipstick may also simply be the marketable – and thus profitable – image of diversity in our time.