I woke up last Monday morning and I decided to scroll through Twitter. All I could think as I saw tweet after tweet about American-Somali model Halima Aden, who graces the front of lads mag Sports Illustrated as the first hijabi cover girl was, ‘Oh, here we go again’.
I’ve thought over and over about how to start this piece, and each time I come back to, ‘Well, I may as well be honest’.
I do not for one second begrudge the lovely Halima and many other diverse models breaking into a white dominated industry. But I do want to critique the industry that has suddenly co-opted diverse models as their brand.
I have written on the hijab and sexuality time and time again, yet each time it gets more repetitive, soul destroying, and frankly, mind-numbingly dull. If we do not know by now that representation in an industry as fickle and superficial as beauty does not mean comprehensive acceptance, then when will we ever know?
In a bid to be represented by the fashion industry, Muslim women are increasingly sexualised and objectified.
Just because Halima has a headscarf on, it does not mean for even one moment Muslim women will now be accepted for their religion. It means that they have been identified as a consumer market and are being fetishised in a swimsuit edition of a magazine that seeks to objectify women and panders to the male gaze.
Similarly, just because Tyra Banks was featured on the front cover in 1997, it didn’t mean that black women were suddenly accepted. The disadvantage these women as a group suffered didn’t suddenly take a turn for the better.
Now, I’m not saying there is no good that comes from being represented; quite the opposite. To be able to pick up a magazine and see a face that reflects you, is a feeling many women of colour can seldom identify with – and so seeing it happen is something to be celebrated. But such representation has a long way to go before it becomes acceptance for more than an elite and beautiful sub-sect of women.
When a magazine that exists primarily for the sexual gratification of men, features a Muslim woman in a headscarf and burkini, the notion of respect and empowerment is questionable.
If we do not know by now that representation in an industry as fickle and superficial as beauty does not mean comprehensive acceptance, then when will we ever know?
In a bid to be represented by the fashion industry, Muslim women are increasingly sexualised and objectified, and the tenets of our faith have been both appropriated and commodified.
Muslim women have become an object of debate, no longer dictating the terms of our engagement, and only ever listened to when our religious commitment rests in a liberal paradigm. The truth is, inclusivity and diversity have become a new metric of success for multi-billion dollar companies. The best way to ensure this is achieved is through the repackaging of the blatant sexualisation and objectification of women, as ‘feminism’, ‘wokeness’, and ‘acceptance’.
Muslim women have fought for comprehensive acceptance, yet the only way western society is willing to engage is within a framework of cultural choices. Representation in industries that profit off the sexualisation of women further reiterates that in order to be accepted by society, we have to conform to and fit within its beauty ideals.
Representation in the fashion industries has done nothing for productive progression; rather it has fetishised the hijab and taken away from its true meaning. Seeing the hijab being showcased in industries that quite literally profit off objectifying and sexualising women is cognitive dissonance at its finest.
The objectification of women is marketed as ‘feminism’, ‘wokeness’, and ‘acceptance’.
The other danger with the casual showcasing of Muslim women in various magazines, is that it breeds a false notion of tolerance, which in reality is far from existing. It seems we have become naïve in assuming that because there is some minor industry representation, suddenly Muslim women are being accepted in their entirety and complexity.
I support Muslim women in whatever they decide to do, and whilst I am well aware of how Islamophobes will look for any reason to attack us when our opinions differ from each other and will subject us to deeply sexist forms of Islamophobia, I am also well aware of the double edged sword that is industry representation.
But we need to critique how in trying to occupy any space and by trying to reassert our presence, we found ourselves being featured in Playboy and Sports Illustrated as exotic vessels of the ‘East’, ripe for consumption by an industry that profits off degrading and dehumanising women.
Whilst I respect and admire all women for actualising their aspirations, I do believe we need to take a lesson from what we see around us. And that lesson is to reclaim the narrative and seek representation in industries that recognise one very important reality; women will engage on their own terms, and those terms will no longer be dictated by patriarchal understandings of a woman's worth.
Afia Ahmed is a London-based writer and history teacher. She is also contributor to the anthology It's Not About the Burqa, edited by Mariam Khan (Picador).
You can follow Afia on Twitter @EduAfs_