A new trend is emerging in Western media and popular culture: the increased visibility of Muslim women who wear the headscarf. Almost invisible in the media just a decade ago, Muslim women wearing hijab been featured in recent months on reality television shows, in the advertisements of trendy fashion lines, and on local news networks. They’ve made their mark in cyberspace, too, tapping into a buzzing network of global citizens who celebrate their commitment to their identity, and the remarkable nature of their normalcy.
If you haven’t noticed them on Fox or the BBC, here’s who they are:
Amanda Saab, 25, who competed on MasterChef this season, is the first hijab-wearing women to appear on an American cooking show. She not only created dishes inspired by her grandmother’s Lebanese cooking, but also won applause for her crab cakes and baked desserts. At the opening of the show, she said, “I want to be on MasterChef to prove to America that Muslim Americans are just like all other Americans. We like to have fun, we love to eat, and we definitely can cook.”
— Amanda Saab❤️ (@AmandasPlate) September 19, 2015
Mariah Idrissi, 23, of Pakistani and Moroccan heritage, took the social media world by storm this month when she became the first model to wear a hijab in an H&M campaign. Donning a checkered kuffiyeh and oversized sunglasses, her appearance was accompanied by a voiceover stating, “look chic.” Speaking to Fusion magazine, she said: “It always feels like women who wear the hijab are ignored when it comes to fashion … so it’s amazing that a brand that is big has recognized the way we wear the hijab.”
Nadiya Hussain, 30, a mother-of-three from Leeds, won the most recent season of the hit UK show, the Great British Bake Off (GBBO). Known for her funny facial expressions, which are documented on a Tumblr called “The Many Faces of Nadiya,” she was also a strong baker, winning the competition with a multi-layered cake topped with quintessentially British hats. But Nadiya, who is of South Asian origin and wears a headscarf, worried that her Muslim identity might be a turn-off for British viewers: “I was nervous that perhaps people would look at me, a Muslim in a headscarf, and wonder if I could bake.”
Noor Tagouri, 21, a Libyan-American who grew up in southern Maryland, dreams of being the first hijabi anchor on commercial television in America. She may be well on her way. With more than 100,000 subscribers to her Facebook page and a viral social media hashtag — #LetNoorShine — that captures her desire to break new ground, she’s interned with CBS, earned a degree in journalism and international development conflict, and by the age of 20, became a local news reporter in the DC area. “I never thought I was going to wear this hijab, [but] when I did start wearing it, I decided that I still wanted to be a reporter, obviously, and I didn’t want this to stop me,” she said.
The first season of Home Free, an American television reality series in which couples compete to win their dream home, featured the husband and wife duo Siddiq and Aidah. After six years of saving for a house, the pair’s loan fell through, leaving them in a tough spot. Siddiq helped his dad with renovation projects while Aidah, who wears the hijab, tapped into her creative side and sold refurbished furniture and handmade jewelry online. Aidah also writes lifestyle blog where she posts pasta sauce recipes, recommends DIY projects, and explains how to “Shop the Flea Market LIKE A BOSS.”
Religion Only a Minor Focus
In their respective media appearances, the women’s Muslim identity was apparent, but not made to be the central focus. Rather, their other attributes, like baking skills or fashion sense, took center stage.
And that’s important to note. Because, even when Muslims are portrayed positively in the media (which is rare), it’s usually with explicit reference to their religion. A recent NPR profile of an American Muslim imam centered around his “devout” religious identity. In contrast, the examples outlined above take these women’s Muslim identity as a given, and instead focused on the ways in which these women are just like everyone else. What’s unique about these portrayals is that they break down people’s stereotypes about Muslim women — as oppressed, meek, and serious — without even referencing Islam.
In a Guardian article titled “How the hijab – and H&M – are reshaping mainstream British culture,” Remona Aly explains this further:
“The move by H&M, GGBO, and others normalises the image of a woman in a hijab within areas that people wouldn’t normally associate with Muslim women. Hussain is not just a woman in a headscarf, she’s a darn good baker. Idrissi isn’t just another “hijabi”, she’s a woman who confidently blends faith with fashion. This reframes the debate, creating parameters which allow Muslim life and culture to be discussed in diverse, healthy and holistic ways, instead of our experiences being represented by negative, reductionist headlines.”
That the debate is being re-framed is partially due to the fact that Muslim women are actively applying for spots on reality T.V. shows and choosing careers in broadcast journalism. Many Muslim women have realized that they can’t expect media portrayals of Muslims to improve if they don’t venture into that realm themselves. But this reframing is ultimately the responsibility of those in charge — the producers and creators of the media content who chose which faces to include.
Intentionally Addressing Islamophobia?
Which brings up the question: Are the producers of this content — the H&M ads, the reality T.V. shows — intentionally including Muslim women with the hope of addressing Westerners’ stereotypes? The answer could very well be “yes.” Instances of prejudice and discrimination targeting Muslims — Islamophobia — have become more frequent, and more publicized. In London, for instance, hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 70% this year. Tell MAMA, an organization that monitors anti-Muslim incidents, has reported that 60% of those attacks were directed at women. The US, too, has seen a spike in attacks against Muslims, and the 2016 presidential election has already engendered heated rhetoric about the group. Recognizing this and wanting to counter it, those creators could be actively seeking to include Muslim women in their content.
The Expanding Western “We”
This increase in hijabi women in the media may also be a sign that the boundaries of the collective Western “we” are expanding. Our media is a reflection of who “we” are. We turn on the T.V. to see ourselves represented. Aly said that she hopes the ubiquity of Muslim women in the media “will render Muslim women less ‘them’ and more ‘us’.”
But perhaps their presence is, in fact, a confirmation that, for many, Muslims are just as much a part of “Western” life as those of other citizens in America and Europe.