According to a New York Times report, an increasing number of 20 to 30-year-old Muslim women are redefining the hijab, propagating it in a way particular to the “selfie generation” by posting on Instagram, among other social media sites— perhaps in an effort to challenge much of the non-Muslim Western world’s preconceived assumption that the hijab is a mere symbol of oppression.
Their Instagrams have served as portals to the Muslim world, and thus catalysts of debate. Western fashion bloggers, however, are all-too-often speaking of contemporary Muslim dress as an unforeseen trend, surprisingly stylish and thus an obvious product of Westernization.
That is where they’re wrong.
Sociologist George Sproles came up with this notion of assimilation of fashion trends decades ago in 1974, when he said that the consumption of Western brands are accepted only when there are motivations for adoption. And perhaps the motivation for adoption does have to do with Westernization. An increasing amount of scholarly literature has accumulated on the impact of international trade and global production of the Western fashion industry, as well as its development prospects in Muslim countries.
In 2013 Patrick Aspers and Frédéric Godart, authors of Sociology of Fashion: Order and Change, published in the Annual Review of Sociology, were the first researchers to ask whether there is a distinct sociological voice in the field of fashion studies. They argued that fashion is, indeed, a sociological topic, conceptualized as an unplanned process of recurrent change against a backdrop of order in the public realm; material fashion such as clothing, is the symbol of that change.
The change, perhaps— the garment industry increasingly surges with cross-border production activities and accelerating trade flow across the world. As a result, Muslim women across the world have, in fact, expressed interest in Western dress.
However, both globalization and fashion theory suggest that Westernization is a process of mutual adaptation. Studies show that Muslim consumerism has indeed adapted to Westernization, but Western fashion is not passively accepted. Rather, is adopted, translated and turned into local realities and worn in ways that coincide with cultural values, essentially creating a hybrid-clothing category. Hence—the “hipster-chic” hijab look now trending on Instagram and garnering media attention of the Western world.
Fajer Saleh Al-Mutawa is one of few researchers who studied Muslim consumers of Western fashion in 2013, with the results of her “Consumer-Generated Representations: Muslim Women Recreating Western Luxury Fashion Brand Meaning through Consumption” study published in Psychology and Marketing. She found that Western values do not necessarily align with their religious and cultural values.
She writes, “brands created by Western culture for Western consumers using Western appeals may not be perceived similarly in non-Western contexts especially when standardized advertising appeals are used.” Such appeals are not congruent with all local and cultural values of Muslim women; the women interviewed considered Western media’s sexualization of fashion to be against Islam’s ideas of modesty. Similarly, some Muslim women on Instagram dress in Western fashion but do so modestly with a hijab that serves both cultural and aesthetic value.
Today, social studies on fashion continue to focus on the West, while changes in non-Western clothing styles are continuously considered to be a ‘result of Western influences.’ It is clear by now that globalization will not led to cultural uniformity.
The contemporary hijab on Instagram is not a product of Westernization, and it is worn for social and political reasons beyond what too many Americans would describe as oppression.
When I studied abroad in Morocco, a primarily Muslim country, I, too, rocked the hijab. Why? Sometimes I felt safer wearing it walking in village streets paralyzed by the piercing eyes of men, and sometimes because it looked great with my outfits in the fashion capital of Casablanca. My Muslim friends wore the hijab because they believed their hair was a treasure and oppression to them would mean having to share that. Instead, they denied those around them in the public sphere of what was only theirs to value.
There is an array of reasons it is worn. Let’s start celebrating the hijab for what it is—whatever an individual Muslim woman wants hers to be. Being surprised by its style, is offensive.