OK maybe I should have tweeted this out instead of frantically scribbling in my notebook, but hey, I hadn’t been inside a university in eight months. I needed to pretend I was back in a classroom. Sure, it was less of a classroom and more of a room where debates were held at the University of Toronto. The organisers had opened up the windows and along with the cold air of the initial stages of a Canadian spring, there was the sound of traffic and students busy with getting through their semester. I’m still very new to Canada – at least in conscious memory – and so I didn’t know most of the people in this panel, let alone the audience. I was only acquainted with Hoda Katebi, a person I began learning from when a video clip went viral where a news broadcaster told her on-air “You don’t sound very American”, to which she most eloquently replied: “Well, that’s because I’ve read.” At the time, little did I know that she along with Eman Idil Bare and Shelina Kassam would give me more of an education on practicing the hijab in this capitalist system than any other experience in my eight months in North America had provided me.
Of course, I was the new kid who didn’t even go to UofT. But while I’ve managed to make this about me, it’s really not. Here are some rough notes from yesterday’s all-women panel discussion on the commercialization of the hijab:
Khalood and Naima opened the session and Habiba, our moderator for the evening, talked about why she wanted this panel to discuss diversity marketing campaigns that increased inclusion of Muslim women. “Why am I interested in this distinctive inclusion?” she asked, a question that seemed addressed to herself more than anyone else. I’m really looking forward to Habiba’s thesis on this. (If you’re reading this, Habiba, I hope this helps you in writing it. I did my best with transcriptions but I’m sure I missed a lot.)
“Fashion frames our bodies for public consumption.” – Hoda Katebi
Hoda began her opening offerings by talking about how we are all partaking in fashion since we are all wearing some kind and form of clothing. She said that all fashion and art is political and that it is a mistake that consider any of our fashion and art to be apolitical. Eman talked about she was not comfortable with her identity being reduced to a piece of cloth. She identified herself as “a journalist who also happens to be a hijabi.” When it was her turn, Professor Shalina got up from her seat, went to the podium, and began her presentation by asking us a series of questions. For me, the most interesting questions were:
“Who are these media companies and for whom are they working?”
“So why not (target) Muslim men?”
For content like Mipsterz the professor asked: “Is it making a point and if so, what is the point?” The slide changed and Oriental images were juxtaposed with images from present-day advertising featuring Muslimahs. “I want to remind us Orientalism. I want us to come back to that,” she said. “Are there differences between classical Oriental images and current images?”
(Honestly, I couldn’t find any)
“If you wanted to support Muslim women, why don’t you start in sweatshops?” asked Hoda.
She pointed out how campaigns that encourage women to try on the hijab for a day “without carrying our colonial baggage” are taking away from the lived experiences of wearing the hijab. According to her, the recent commercialisation of the hijab “flattens and monotholises Muslim identities” where what we are seeing is a “circus-level representation.” Like in the recent case of Amena Khan, a UK based makeup artist who left a L’Oreal campaign due to the reaction to her past tweets, a Muslimah’s identity is exploited for its superficial elements.
“They just want a face but they don’t want the politics that come with it,” said Hoda.
Eman shared how she went to an Islamic school and she talked about what she referred to as the “Islamic School Syndrome” where kids at her Islamic school would call refer to kids going to the public school across the streets as “normal”. This normal vs Islamic distinction made little sense to her because she said had always seen herself as “normal”. For her, being black and Muslim was normal and she was aware that for someone else, their normal could be different. As a result she consciously took care not to use parts of her identity to, in her words, sell out. “I never marketed myself as the first hijabi to do xyz,” she said, “because I knew someone had probably done it before me because Instagram wasn’t a thing back then.” Eman urged everyone in the audience to stop considering selling out to be an option. “We want a seat at the table without seeing who’s in control of the table,” she said. She suggested that we support local makers of hijabs. “The Nike hijabs are good because Nike has the money to make good hijabs,” she said.
When Habiba asked a question about how Muslim identities were being sanitized, Eman spoke about how most of the influencers on Instagram are white, half-white, or white-passing. She asked the audience if we ever wondered why it’s only Syrian refugees who the media keeps returning its lens to. Perhaps it’s for the same reason that bodies of brown and black refugees are not giving room in international media. Hoda agreed with Eman and said that when we are asked to assimilate into North America, what we’re actually being asked to do is “assimilating into whiteness.” Professor Shelina expanded the discussion by talking about how “whiteness is not just in how we look but what we are allowed to say.” She said that according to the nation state, she is not a potential threat since there are no easy signifiers that indicate she is a Muslim. Which means that she’s the “moderate Muslim” except when she speaks her mind. Here, I should point out that the professor resists using the term moderate since according to her, anything not classified as moderate by the nation state is deemed to be immoderate and unacceptable – an understanding she does not agree with.
“You need to ask yourself: Why are we so buyable?”- Eman Idil Bare
Eman looked straight at the audience and continued: “You are being tested by how close you are to whiteness. And I see so many of you failing.” She talked about how she felt this wasn’t her test because she’s a black Muslimah and thus safe from being used in the commercialisation of the hijab. “They don’t want me. I want me. God wants me,” she said.
When the conversation shifted to Muslim men, Hoda talked about how fewer Muslim men were not as visibly Muslim from head to toe which is why that niche wasn’t targeted.
“What’s the point about wearing a hijab if it’s made by a seven-year old?” asked Eman, when talking about how sweatshops were haram.
When asked to place commercialisation with the larger conversation on capitalism, Eman’s point on sweatshops stood out strongest to me. For her, this was not a matter to be taken lightly as it brought our religious beliefs into question. Hoda saw the commercialisation to mean that we are comprising with our values.
“Not only are we comprising, we are complicit. … Not to take a stand is also to take a stand,” added Professor Shelina.
When the conversation was directed towards callout culture as opposed to the culture of calling in, Hoda talked about how the bar is set so low when in in fact it should be set higher for our influencers and leaders. At its core, Hoda’s argument was that no one is free to step outside the consequences of their choice. She said: “You have the right to choose to dress your body how you want but you’re not outside the harm that it (i.e. your choice) causes.” Professor Shelina talked about how communities need to have “spaces where we can be called out.” She said, “All of us have blindspots. All of us need to be called out.” For Eman, the matter was spiritual. She talked about how one of the signs of Youm ul Qiyamah would be how those who were undeserving would be appointed as leaders, as we could all see happening. “They represent us because they have the money to do so,” she said. It was a problem on our part too. “People who do not value themselves are continuously selling themselves out,” said Eman, urging how we needed to be disruptive and change how things were continuing because we could afford to do so. “Our parents were in survival mode. They couldn’t be disruptive. Our parents kept their heads down to survive because we wouldn’t have to.”
When asked by Habiba to give some advice to the influencers and leaders present in the audience, Hoda talked about how a) you should seek brands that allow your words to take up space, b) you should do your research about the brands you want to collaborate with, and c) you should give up your seat when you are sure that the right voice is being heard (for example, she as an Iranian could not sit on a panel on Palestine with no Palestinians on it). Eman talked about career-related growth where from early on she realised the kind of stories she wanted to do as a reporter and the kind of training she wanted and what she is going to do to get it (freelance investigative journalism and law school). She spoke of how your organisation should invest in your growth as opposed to merely using you because you fit in their image of how diverse they are.
“Everyone wanted me to be the hijabi journalist,” said Eman, “but I wanted to be a journalist before I wanted to be a hijabi.”
When asked about little girls growing up in this day and age are being affected, Eman talked about how Instagram is feeding into insecurities of not just little girls but people of all ages and genders. “Just because it’s modest it’s not, like, halal,” reminded Hoda. Professor Shelina said she was intrigued and yet surprised by why people would willingly share so much of their personal lives online. “Is it OK to share all of that stuff?” she asked.
An audience member asked wasn’t it better to have any representation and inclusion as opposed to none at all. Hoda asked us to look at how we were represented not with the question “What representation?” but rather “Where?”. In the United States of America, the image of a Muslim woman using an American flag as a hijab disregarded how that same flag was fluttering in lands where her people were being killed. Eman appeared to be amused by the question. She said: “If a hijab in an ad makes you want to buy something, you should be supporting a lot of Muslim brands.” She spoke of how Muslim consumers needed to give validation to people who were low-key on the international scene but were deeply rooted in local community work. “The changemakers aren’t the ones getting verified on Instagram,” she said. She said it made no sense to her as to why we seek validation from people who had no interest in our well-being. “You really think they’re going to be nice to you because they put you in an ad?” she asked. As a Muslim community, she said we needed to love ourselves and sit with ourselves in front of the mirror so that we could never arrive at the day we sold ourselves simply because we didn’t value ourselves enough. We needed to remind each other of our worth and value because this was a duty we had as a community. “Why are we a community? Is it because we pray together?” she asked.
Around this time, the discussion had arrived at its end and in their final comments, everyone onstage reflected on what was said and how it was said.
“I wish this audience was more inter-generational,” said Hoda at the very end. She talked about how she hoped there would kids running around the place and elderly people becoming a part of the discussion.
Here’s hoping that happens the next time this conversation takes place.