Hijab and Body Image

The edited version of this article was just published on Boing Boing today!


More and more Muslim women are choosing to wear hijab or the headscarf and they have found a way to modernize it. In the past women would simply wear more ethnic clothing found in certain parts of the world. For example the long gowns that go over their clothing often referred to as an Abaya in Gulf countries, or its counterpart in places like Syria and Jordan is known as the Jilbab. If you go to Afghanistan it morphes into the Burqa or the Chador in Iran.

Women from these countries had different styles and ways in which women tried to follow the Islamic requirement, which is to cover all but the face, hands and feet. The clothing has to be loose and not reveal too much of the body. In addition, it can’t be sheer as to show what’s underneath the clothes.

There is nothing wrong with these ethnic interpretations of hijab and no one has ever really questioned it. But as new generations of Muslim women started coming of age in Western parts of the world or in places where hijab was given a bad rap, they began experimenting with fashion and trying to find ways in which their hijab didn’t take away from their self expression.

As the increase in demand for modest yet fashionable clothing began to rise in the mid 2000’s so did the rise in designers who specialized in “hijab fashion”.

The hijab industry before then was most likely run by some middle aged man who bought imported fabrics from China or India and had them sewn into scarves or long dresses. It was usually hit or miss with these items.

Now, however, Muslim women do have greater selection in modest and fashionable clothing. Mainstream retailers as of late have been producing maxi dresses and maxi skirts which Muslim women adore. They are long and loose and are perfectly in line with the latest trends.

There are also more women stepping up to the plate and becoming entrepreneurs of real fashion lines. They are designing and selling clothing that breaks the stereotype that Muslim made clothing is drab.

A typical Turkish hijab fashion model

With this rise in hijab fashion more Muslim women say they want to wear hijab or have started to wear hijab. They see that they aren’t limited anymore in what they want to wear. They can express themselves creatively.

At the same time, this new phenomenon has caused somewhat of a tricky situation. Muslim businesses are trying to market their products in attractive ways. Turkey was one of the first Islamic countries to have “hijab fashion shows” but they bring their models in from surrounding European countries. These models make the hijab look appealing and give young girls the hope of looking like that too one day.

In an ironic twist, Muslim women may now be falling prey to the very same thing they preach against: the media’s objectification of women.

Sara Gil, a 20 year old fashion marketing and design student who lives in Bogota Columbia, says she decided to wear hijab after she became Muslim because she saw it as a way to preserver her identity as a Muslim and as a way to get closer to God. It was also a way for her to escape the common scrutiny of women.

” I think the media portrays women as nothing more than a tool to draw attention. It puts women as examples of physical beauty and attraction rather than of intellect and or education. And there is nothing positive about that.”

Gil says despite her hijab, she does sometimes feel critical of herself when she’s bombarded with images of women in magazines and on television, but not so much on the standard of beauty. She feels critical about body image.

Aisha Ahmad, 30, a health care administrator from Ft. Lauderdale Florida agrees.

“I often struggle to find that balance in my work attire when I compare my look to what I see on TV, print ads, and in the stores. Being pretty and thinner than I am are always on my mind. Whether I want to admit or not, I take ques from what I see in the media as what I “should” look like and then find myself buying accessories to look like what I see in the media.”

But some women don’t seem to necessarily notice the media influence on women. Woro Hapsari, 39, is a Real Estate Sub-region Head in Nokia Siemens Networks, Indonesia. She believes the mainstream media in Indonesia positively represents women. She started wearing hijab a few years

In the last few years we’ve seen a big increase in hijab fashion and marketing toward Muslim women and many women say they see it as a positive thing.

Sarah Gil is encouraged by it and says that it makes her feel more comfortable and satisfied with her “hijabi skin”.

Woro Hapsari and Aisha Ahmad also see the benefits of hijab fashion. They think it’s great to have a solution for Muslim women who want to be modest and fashionable.

Inaya Shujaat, converted to Islam over 12 years ago, and says much of the representation of women in the main stream media only serves to objectify women. “I feel that women may be encouraging it. When we have female celebrities whose only accomplishments are being “hot” or “gorgeous,” I wonder what sort of message that sends. We are living in the post Women’s Liberation era, yet I feel that women are being portrayed in a more negative way today, and it is largely due to how women are portraying themselves.”

But what are Muslim women’s thoughts on the way hijab fashion is being marketed? It seems to be a bit of a conundrum. On one hand it’s an easy way to target the younger generations of Muslim women growing up with Western influences. But it can easily fall into the same category of objectification.

Woro Hapsari says she doesn’t think the models should be wearing heavy makeup or featured because they are really thin. “I mean hijab fashion is different from regular fashion and we don’t want to send the wrong message to public.”

hijab fashion model

Model posing before Dubai Fashion Show

Inaya Shujaat likes the idea of hijab fashion, but takes issue with a few things. “I don’t like that it seems to be appropriate only for one particular age group and dress size. I am a 36 year old mother of two. I do not wish to dress like a 21 year old college student, nor do I have the body of a 21 year old college student. Hijab fashion needs to be all-inclusive, bearing in mind that Muslim women come in many shapes, sizes, ages, etc. It really irritates me that I basically have two choices when it comes to hijab fashion: ethnic, or trendy. There is no in-between.”

Aisha Ahmad  also thinks there are pros and cons. “It’s two-sided. On the one hand, it’s nice to see that one can achieve the high fashion look while still wearing hijab and on the other hand, it puts you right back in the same place as regular media, not all of us look like these models, nor will we ever look the way they do in those looks, so it makes one less prone to purchase those items.”

The fact that Muslim companies are using tall European models is a bit misleading according to many Muslim women. Many clothing companies make their products look amazing, but when the average woman tries it on, they feel inadequate. Sarah Gil says this is sending the wrong message. “Instead of making women feel proud of their Muslim identity they make women feel like they should try to imitate and look like the these models.”

Woro Hapsari says she looks at the models only as something to aspire to in terms of health and fitness, but not necessarily feeling like she has to live up to their image. “Of course most of the ads use slim women as the models with good hair, nice dress, and all.  And yes it affects me, but not as much now since I wear a hijab. You can say that now those models influence me to look healthy and to dress nicely but still in modesty.

Jana Kosaibati, blogger and medical student, runs the website hijabstyle and says that she thinks these companies are trying to live up to the standards of advertising that mainstream companies use, because they feel consumers want that.

“ They are after all competing with the mainstream markets too. But even within the hijab/Islamic fashion market, there is a large variation in the type of advertising they use. Many will not show models’ faces, and some won’t even use models at all. If a company chooses to use glammed up models, I don’t think this is misleading; most consumers are savvy enough to look beyond the adverts. It would be quite refreshing though, to see companies try to come up with effective, creative advertising, without just imitating mainstream glossy magazines, albeit with the model wearing a scarf on her head. In terms of what image they project, at the end of the day, the companies are selling clothing that although may primarily be aimed at women wearing hijab, can be worn by anyone, and in any setting. It’s up to the consumer to decide how they want to wear the clothes.”

Kossaibati does have similar thoughts when it comes down to the actual modeling of hijab fashion.

“I think a lot of the criticisms women have against fashion advertising is to do with the fact that only extremely thin, tall, young models are ever portrayed, which is not reflective of the average female population. I think hijab fashion companies have a great opportunity here to showcase women of different shapes, sizes, ethnicities and ages, if they do choose to use models. I know lots company owners ask friends and family to model for them, or even rehijab fashion modelcruit their own customers! In this way I think they make their clothing feel a lot more accessible and wearable for all women, and this helps to counteract the negative messages that mainstream advertising may be sending out.”

Model walking the runway in Dubai showcasing a more modern “abaya”.



What is the solution to women and their representation in media whether it’s from a secular or religious standpoint? There may never be a clear cut answer, but what as long as women put their beauty and bodies first, they will never be happy. Whether women wear hijab or not, they are being bombarded with what they are supposed to look like and there is no “one size fits all” mold to put them in.

While it is great to see more options for Muslim women and those who want to dress modestly, it would be refreshing to have the professional models look more like the rest of us.

After all we are the ones that are buying the stuff.

This article has 5 comments

  1. Mariam

    Quite awhile ago I turned my back on “modern” culture to express my dislike of objectifying women, among other things. Then I discovered Islam, and I really saw the goodness and the sense of wearing an abaya as a sort of uniform to downplay personality and beauty. However, I was really used to wearing slacks and jeans and cannot wear a flowing abaya without tripping.

    I typically now wear a long kurti, which I sew myself, over jeans. I wear a scarf or shayla and don’t use a lot of bling in the form of hijab pins, etc. I just try to keep it simple and utilitarian, and somehow, it looks elegant. I really agree with this article, because I hate to see us as Muslims falling into the same old trap of getting gussied up all the time, competing with each other on clever ways to wear hijab, etc. It takes a lot of time to coordinate clothes. and you can find yourself spending too much time on that, which could be better spent doing good deeds, learning something, or even talking to Allah.

    There’s a creative side to some of us though, and we just can’t help wanting to be pretty and create pretty outfits. I REALLY feel that there is one huge gap in the clothing market that contributes to our desire for glam in outdoor wear, and that is beautiful things to wear at home. I wish there were more lounging clothes that are attractive to my husband, but not raunchy. Raunchy doesn’t equal sensuality or desirability and neither does flannel.

    I think we have to use self-discipline and remind ourselves of what we really believe in, examine our conscience, and take advantage of some of the great clothing out there. I suppose too that if everyone is wearing a long skirt, draped hijab, a short jeans jacket, and hijab pins and bracelets, no one really stands out. I don’t think we have to look like we came from Jordan or Iran in order to be identified as Muslim. I just like having a choice.

  2. Samira

    I love this article!

  3. Mariam Sobh

    Thank you Reem!
    @Yasmin you are right 🙂

  4. Yasmin

    Very interesting article! I had no idea that these models were European so does that mean that some of these models are non-Muslim?

  5. Reem

    Love the article!
    Great read Mashallah!

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