By Rajae El Mouhandiz
Muslim women are the new cultural global leaders via soft power through fashion, pop-culture and art.
The Muslim world has been suffering from significant shortcomings, such as ineffective communication between citizens and their leaders and stagnation in the development of many Muslim-majority countries. Limited freedom of speech and a regressive approach towards fighting extremism and gender inequality are all too common. This attitude has to change. Leadership has to evolve in order to build trust, and must be self-critical, in order to promote human rights, accountability and to show the world that Islam stands for peace and spiritual growth, rather than tyranny and stagnation.
But why would they if it means giving up power?
The ego is not often discussed when we speak of world peace, but many of the world’s problems stem from selfishness and inability to connect with others in an empathetic way. This is why some Muslim youth leave their families and countries. They seem to have no sense of identity, nor a firm spiritual base to root them and keep them from joining death cults. They hijack Islam out of vindication, because their identity is in limbo. Those who abuse their positions of authority dubiously lure them astray with smart marketing tools filled with propaganda and blood-thirsty fantasies- to places far away from home, their identities, a future and the core teachings of their faith.
In a globalized world where matters of identity are complex, Muslim leaders should be using their collective power to tackle issues of connecting with youth in a more effective way. Due to ineffective communication by Muslim leaders, the responsibility to deal with this phenomena is exported to societies where these modern day problems with identity, religious interpretation and extremism have more room to fester and grow.
With the rise of a new wave of nationalism, extremism and terrorism, minority groups and women suffer the most. In America, the Black Lives Matter movement exists because young black lives are still in danger. Freedom of speech, the environment, human and women’s rights are under threat by the military-industrial complex that profits from pushing young men and women into war. All the while, global leaders are oblivious to this reality, distracted by their political tactics.
Post 9/11 Generation
16 years after 9/11, Muslim youth are shaped by the conditions that nurtured them, be it in Muslim majority countries or as the children of immigrants or refugees in the rest of the world. This generation, which journalist Rachel Aspden calls ‘Generation Revolution’ is dancing between tradition, spirituality and global change.
Muslim youth are in search of a moral compass and intellectual/spiritual guidance. They are a generation raised by Hollywood, Netflix, Youtube and are constantly in dialogue with their online tribes via social media. They are a generation of young Muslims who base their identity on fashion, make up and phone brand names… and religion. They are caught up in having to base their choices on their gender, traditional roles at home, modern life outside, consumerism and their religion somewhere hidden in the back of their minds.
Muslim youth need direction, they need sounding boards, they need stories that they can relate to and they need platforms, open spaces and art to reflect, to criticize and to grow intellectually, emotionally and artistically. Pop culture has always been working in favor of a younger generation trying and pushing forward, to outgrow, question and reclaim traditional authority. One of the primary victors iof the post 9/11 are Muslim women: we have witnessed leaps and bounds in their representation in mass media, and this positive aspect must be emphasized.
The “Hollywood Muslim”
While Hollywood is still attached to negative stereotyping of the “Muslim male Villain or comedian” or the “Oppressed or exotic hidden erotic Muslima” stereotypes, more positive representations are coming to the fore in social media. Record labels, mainstream entertainment companies and art scenes also seem weary of pushing ‘openly’ Muslim artists, although the mainstream acceptance of pop star Zayin Malik is changing that given.
But while we all embrace Zayin, (Muslim) Record labels are still weary of pushing female Muslim artists for no valid reason other than misogyny and the ongoing discussion about whether it is permissible for a woman to make, sing or perform music. This doesn’t mean that there are no Muslim female artists out there; In the world music scene, international film industry and in Muslim majority countries there are plenty of women active, but on a global stage and especially in the West, their representation is minimal for the obvious political reasons and their participation remains minimal.
Breaking the Glass Ceiling
The safest and most free creative space for Muslim women seems to be social media. The savviness of Muslim women in combining their online presence with fashion, beauty and entrepreneurship is a catalyst for positive representation. Larger brands and marketing agencies have found a way to engage with a young Muslim consumers via online influencers and the modest fashion industry, pushed and developed by Muslim women.
According to Forbes, Muslim consumers spent an estimated $243 billion on clothing in 2015. Modest fashion purchases by Muslim women were estimated at $44 billion that year.
Though these statistics signify the triumph of capitalism, Muslim youth purchasing power is an indication that they are rewriting their own narrative; using their creative power, Muslim youth today offer an alternative to mainstream stereotypes and demystify modern Muslim/West paradoxes. The impact is massive; they are successful, they inspire and are hired by international superstars to collaborate with them on large fashion and beauty campaigns. Mainstream brands are opening their doors and are starting to cater to this newly discovered audience, although not always for the most noble reasons. Still they deserve credit for doing what world leaders are refusing to do: They are listening to this young audience, studying their language and servicing their consumer needs and as a result successfully working with them and of course, their purchasing power. A perfect match in an e-commerce era.
Yet this reality has a bleak side. Upon perusing countless social media accounts, owned by Modest Fashion influencers, the question then becomes: are they commodifying the Muslim woman? The persona of the social media Hijabi icons perpetuates similar personality types, confined by photo filters, make up layers, nonchalant poses in the latest “Mipster Fashion” looks and picture perfect settings, I can’t help but ask; How will they use their newfound social influence? What kind of social impact do they envision? Is it merely the representation of Modest Hijabi women? How will they represent other Muslim women who don’t ascribe to their same unified standards of “modesty”?
Muslim women can not be approached or boxed into one stereotype. Muslim women are diverse and they need to be given the space to be unique and layered. Like all women they live and move within various intersections: Gender, Religion, Race & Politics. All these intersections matter. All these layers need to be discovered, uncovered, showcased and discussed in order to shape a healthy psychology towards identity and most importantly to guide young Muslim girls and women into spiritually strong and confident women.
This is where I hope Muslim women will evolve further into using their collective voices to challenge regressive “leaders” who have unjust and unethical views of women. To support this vision, Muslim creatives and artists can help create impactful and insightful campaigns. Since “money talks” they can use the rise of the “halal market” to their advantage, for the greater social good. Though Muslim leadership generally falls short, the bar must be raised to include positive representation in Hollywood, international publishers, marketing firms and art institutions. Because if the representation of Muslim women in public life is only accepted if she showcases and commercializes a stereotypical, standardized version of ‘halal beauty’, the world is hypocritical about their newfound adoration of Muslim women.
It is my hope that the emerging Muslim generation will grow further out of their comfort zones and start developing a deep, meaningful artistic and philosophical dialogue with the world and its leaders.
I am grateful to be surrounded by inspiring like minded—Muslim—women, who amaze me with their talents, drive, perseverance and wisdom. In 2007, I attended the WISE conference in New York, which brought together 300 female Muslim leaders from all over the world for the first time to uplift one another and exchange ideas. I was lucky to be there at a phase in my life when I was still very much in search of guidance. I felt empowered, being in the presence of a room full of diverse Muslim female leaders of various generations, fields and cultures, who had one thing in common; to raise the bar and be game changers. Their presence removed my fear and strengthened me to pursue my artistic path and climb the steep hill that followed.
Artists and in this Zeitgeist especially female Muslim artists possess the power to broach uncomfortable topics and challenge our collective conscience and individual fears. Art is meant to help us get in touch with our fragile, human and sometimes ugly sides. Artists uncover cosmetics and touch what is broken underneath the masked society whichand old empires force us to wear. It is time for Muslim women in general and Muslim female artists to raise their voices. They are part of—Muslim—leadership and they are communicating with the world, in modern times, with modern tools, on mainstream platforms… raising the standard of communication and representation. They are the game changers the world needs to pay attention to. They will lead the wave of the future, one girl at a time.