Like any other device, modesty has become a tool for many women all over the world. It shows character and confidence where the heart and mind rule the body. In a time where traditional and modern meet in the middle, more and more women are accomplishing extraordinary things without compromising their style or their faith. FACT’s Shabana Adam explores the rise of the modest lifestyle in the gulf and beyond, and why it has taken so long for a generation-aged concept to finally break into the mainstream…
What do Nura Afia, Amena Khan, and Ibtihaj Muhammad have in common? Clue: it’s not just their very evident Muslim names. These three women did what some would have believed unimaginable even a decade ago. They broke int the mainstream to become the first hijab-wearing representatives in industries that are traditionally targeted towards western aesthetics and features. Nura wowed makeup experts and became an official ambassador for CoverGirl in 2017, while Amena was cast in a major haircare campaign for L’Oréal Paris Elvive – though short-lived – earlier this year, and Ibtihaj is not only a bad-ass sabre fencer, she’s the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the 2016 Olympics.
All women, all Muslim, all wearing the hijab. And all of these achievements were made just over the past couple of years. My question is, what took so long for the world to stand up and notice these strong, capable, beautiful women and the thousands more who embrace their passions and talents without compromising their creative wardrobes and their faith? The answer could very well lie in the rapid rise of the modest lifestyle.
In order to appreciate the impact and growth of modesty into the mainstream, we need to understand who it effects, benefits, and whether we’re witnessing an evolution or a revolution. So, what is modest fashion? Interpretations can differ depending on who you ask, but a widely accepted definition would be: a sense of personal style while remaining relatively covered. That means, high collars, long sleeves and hemlines, or looser clothing, for example – formerly “uncool” wardrobe attire that has gone from drab to fab. Generally speaking, modest fashion is a personal choice which simply means wearing more conventional clothing inspired by everything from your cultural norms to the latest runway collections.
“When I hear the words modest fashion, I think of my hijab and to me it means dressing while adhering to my faith,” says Yasmine, a British-Lebanese modest lifestyle blogger who goes by the instagram name @undercoverstyling. “I think it has taken time for modest fashion to break into the mainstream because there are examples that are set from fashion hubs like New York, Paris and London where modesty was not considered when designing,” Yasmine explains. “Now with the rise of social media as well as the rise of modest bloggers and celebrities, modest fashion is making headlines.”
She’s right. A number of western brands including online retailers like Net-A-Porter and big-name fashion houses such as Dolce & Gabbana, DKNY and Oscar de la Renta, have caught on to the booming market with exclusive collections, shining a spotlight on modest-wear. In fact, it is estimated that the international Muslim clothing market is forecast to be worth $373 billion by 2022, according to the latest Global Islamic Economy report, produced by Reuters. We’re also seeing the likes of London and Dubai; two of the most stylish cities in the world, now host an annual Modest Fashion Week. Nike has launched the Pro Hijab for modest sportswear, whilst Japanese fashion chain Uniqlo introduced its Uniqlo x Hana Tajima Collection with a line of hijabs, and H&M has featured a Muslim model, Mariah Idrissi, wearing a headdress in one of their major campaigns. Plus, we all remember the time a 15-year-old Saudi teenager demanded a hijab-clad emoji – of course, WhatsApp made it happen. It is rare for a multi-billion dollar industry to fly under the radar for so long, as the modest fashion sector has. But, it sleeps no more.
Thanks to Muslim millennials, specifically women, this once unnoticed market is being driven forward by consumers, designers and trendsetters. Blending local, cultural styles from countries spanning Indonesia to the Middle East, Paris to New York, momentum for all things modest can be seen in e-c ommerce, on social media and other unorthodox channels. One of the major influencers on the rise o f the modest lifestyle is, undoubtedly, instagram. Bloggers have developed substantial followings as champions of modesty which crosses everything from fashion to the increase in halal travel and tourism as well as halal food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. now, alongside your Buzzfeed entertainment listicles, you’re likely to find articles like “50 Modest Fashion Influencers to Follow” – helping to broaden the presence and conversation.
For Yasmine, who loves combining fabrics, colours, prints and textures to make a bold statement, sharing the beauty of dressing modestly was one of the many reasons she decided to start @undercoverstyling on the gram. “I wanted to encourage other young women who don’t feel represented and they can be inspired by the colours, designs, and fabrics,” she says. “The use of social media has giv en Muslim women a voice and exposure that they never had before. We are able to communicate around the world and show people what the life of a modern, Muslim woman is really like,” Yasmine tells us. “It is the same for many communities around the world but especially for Muslim women because of the stereotypes that have been so prevalent previously. It means we can take back some control and show people a glimpse into our world.”
As the western hemisphere takes note of how modest choices are, simply, a normal part o f life for millions of Muslim women, it still remains a misconception in many parts of the world, that women who wear the hijab or more traditional clothing, are oppressed. “Many people in the west still lack knowledge and understanding of the history and the privilege of wearing a hijab,” says UAE-based British-Pakistani teacher Suneela Aslam. “Despite immigrants being an integral part of western life, some communities in places like America or the UK simply don’t invest enough time in learning about our differences.” Leading us to question whether the modest lifestyle is just another passing trend – one that blings cha-ching for profitmaking more so than a mo vement to break cultural boundaries. “I am all about breaking the stereotypes,” Yasmine says. “I wanted to create a platform that was positive and encouraging for modest women. The hijab for me is an honor and I wanted to show Muslim women that it is not limiting,” she continues. “I have travelled the world and my hijab has been a way for me to speak and deal with people and to tear down any misconceptions.”
Let’s take a look at how western institutions have picked certain personalities to advocate for modesty. Take Halima Aden, the Somali- American Miss Minnesota USA contestant, who competed wearing a hijab and a “burkini” – another first in the states. She was quickly signed to IMG Models, the agency that represents the Hadid sisters and went on to walk on the runway – wearing a hijab – for Yeezy, Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti. Is her success a fairy tale waiting to fade out or is her mainstream modest lifestyle an agent for change?
It’s no secret that models like Halima Aden, Mariah Idrissi and supermodel Zara Mohamed Abdulmajid, widelyknown as Iman, were chosen for their gifted genes, but also as individuals who can highlight and express whatever message they have to offer with the support of various western companies. They are the reflection of modern-day society – one that is made up of a multitude of races and ethnicities, where certain folk adopt a survival strategy of embracing their duality to flow in between two cultures. Halima, for example, is Somali and American, a Muslim in a principally Christian country who inspires modesty whilst successfully walking the world’s biggest fashion weeks. “Hijabi models have an opportunity right now to change the conversation and show people how to embrace two worlds,” Suneela says. “Similarly, the fashion industry must help to educate the masses by normalising diversity instead of segregating it as a novelty or a trend.
It is important to note that whilst acceptance of modest icons has helped to dispel some negative attitudes towards Muslim women, or any woman, who chooses to dress traditionally, there are still some damaging perspectives towards religion in some countries that have also deterred the growth of the modest lifestyle in selected markets. Restrictions like the burka ban in some parts of Europe or banned veils in some Chinese provinces means that even the most successful and far-reaching modest influencers, struggle to connect and relay their positive vibes and messages. Hold on, shouldn’t we leave it up to women to decide for themselves what they want to wear and how that crisp white Zara shirt or the patterned abaya and matching head scarf makes them feel?
Tülin Meric, a Bahrain-based British- Turkish modest fashion blogger running the platform @trestouline, says: “I would say that I’m freer than most women. Wearing modest clothing allows me to choose what I display or don’t display of my body. It allows me to express myself through colour and design. “Dressing modestly also naturally gives off an indication on my religious stance,” Tülin explans. “I have a sense of liberation because there is an invisible barrier set between you and others – men – and that makes me feel safe and in control. I would say this is the ultimate freedom for any woman.”
Choosing to live modestly in all or certain aspects of life is not a new concept. Generations of women, of many different faiths, have been covered whilst accomplishing great things and breaking that glass ceiling. Here’s hoping that this contemporary uprising and progression will not burn out anytime soon. For the moment, let us celebrate the Nura’s and Ibtihaj’s of the world, as they continue to remind people everywhere that you don’t need permission to be who you are and to go after what you want.