Girlz, Muslim-style

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Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe

In the last few years, a subculture has developed in some Muslim communities in America. Just who are the Mipsterz? These young Muslim hipsters are up on the latest fashion, music, art, food and so on, but they insist on maintaining their Muslim identity and find creative ways to integrate it with contemporary trends. Mipsterz are both male and female, but fashion being what it is, it’s the female Mipsterz who are attracting the most attention.

And considering that nearly every religion and culture seems to focus intensely on women’s appearance and attire, on what part of her body a woman can and cannot expose, it’s no wonder that the female Mipsterz are gaining notice. Just as in Islamic countries, in Muslim communities in the United States the hijab, the traditional head-covering, occupies a central place in the debate and is a key marker of gender, culture and identity.

This debate heated up in wake of the video for Jay Z’s “Somewhere in America.” The two directors, Abbas Rattani and Habib Yazdi, cast young Muslim-American girls which a chic, nonconformist style that combines colorful tights, high heels, ethnic (and Gothic) accessories, vintage items and, of course, the hijab in numerous shades and forms. And what are the girls doing in the video? Riding skateboards, dancing, fencing, taking selfies, climbing fences and railings and trees, and mainly striking all kinds of modeling poses.

The fact that the video was directed by two Muslim men has sparked criticism both at home and abroad. Sure, it’s fine for men to see and show Muslim women with head coverings as something cool. What do they care − they don’t have to prove their modesty at any given moment, and wear a head covering even at the height of summer. “We wanted to make a video that combines fashion with the hijab, a combination you don’t normally see in the media,” said codirector Yazdi in an interview on “The Stream,” an English talk show on the Al Jazeera network which recently devoted an entire episode to the phenomenon.

A lot of Muslim young women, Mipsterz of course, appear to support Yazdi’s sentiment and their portrayal in the video. The Western media portray Muslim women in one of three ways, according to the host of the Al Jazeera program: by focusing on their appearance and dress while ignoring who they are and what they do; as the eternal, voiceless, submissive, passive and oppressed victim while ignoring Muslim women trailblazers who are successful and creative; or lumping all “Muslim women” together despite their myriad differences.

But is the whole Mipsterz thing just about breaking the popular stereotypes about Muslim women in what’s known as “the West”? “There are stereotypes everywhere,” said one Muslim man on the show. “Islam in America doesn’t need cool and grotesque Islamo-fashionistas so they can empower themselves.”

But Hajer Naili, a journalist who was also interviewed on the program, said that as a Muslim-American woman, she had to take into account the place where she lives as well as her cultural roots, just as a Muslim woman in Indonesia acts and looks different than a Muslim woman in Iraq or Egypt. If so, asked the interviewer, when do Muslim women really stop being concerned with breaking stereotypes and just start living their lives as they themselves see and understand them?

Another woman made the point that breaking the stereotype comes later − it’s not the first thing that happens. “First we find our way to combine our creativity with Islam − it could be through fashion, makeup, art or whatever. The first thing we do is to be ourselves, to be true to ourselves within the context of Islam. There are different levels of modesty within this framework, we’re not a monolithic group. It just so happens that the way we look doesn’t always fit with your view of Muslim women!”

Whose view does she mean? Western men and women. “It’s really something,” says my French-Moroccan friend Jamila. “Everyone wants to tell us how to dress. Within the Muslim community, it’s the men who want us to cover up as much as possible, and from the outside you have Western women who want us to uncover as much as possible. And they’re all sure that it’s for our own good.”

The host echoed this thought: “Why do women in the West get so worked up whenever they hear us talking about the hijab and fashion?”

Many Muslim women are critical of the Mipsterz phenomenon too. It may have originated in America, but Mipsterz can be found in other Western countries, as well as in Muslim countries (even if not known by that name there). Such was the case in connection with two of the more than 1,200 videos produced around the world to Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy,” showing happy people dancing in the streets. One was made by Muslims in London and the other by Muslims in Chicago, featuring cool-looking men and women − Mipsterz, some with head coverings and some without. A group of Muslim women in London reacted angrily, denouncing the “false picture” presented of Muslims, and they even produced a clip of their own in which their faces are almost completely veiled.

My friend Jamila, whose parents came from Morocco, was born and raised in France. She does not wear a head covering but she is very familiar with the conflict between the cultures at home and outside the home, the attraction of things that don’t always seem to go together, and the question of how to culturally define oneself. Although she doesn’t wear the hijab, she does maintain other behavioral codes as part of her Muslim identity.

Discussing the Mipsterz phenomenon and the ability of Muslim women to integrate in Western society, she points out a very significant difference between the Muslim communities in America and France, citing a controversial ad in order to illustrate: In the U.S., a commercial for an anti-snoring medication showed an American soldier embracing his veiled, Muslim partner, with the tag line “If we can keep this couple together, we can keep anyone together.” The spot drew criticism for its stereotypical representation of a Muslim woman, and some fierce objections to the idea that an American soldier could have a Muslim woman for a spouse.

But Jamila, and lots of other Muslim women in France, see something inclusive in the image, despite the stereotype. “This sort of commercial basically portrays you as a Muslim but also as part of American society,” she says. “And this is what allows the Mipsterz trend to grow in America because they are Muslim women, but they can also see themselves as part of American society.”

She says that in France, such a thing is not possible. Certainly not after a law was passed banning the hijab and any type of religious head-covering in public places. “France, which is supposed to stand for ‘liberty, equality and brotherhood,’ is essentially telling us Muslims that we’re not really a part of French society. Even though I was born here and have lived most of my life here, I don’t completely belong.”

Besides the message to Muslims, the French law against the veil is basically telling the “real” French people that we are democratic and open and liberal and egalitarian, just with one small condition: that everybody look the same. But just try and argue with the values of the French Revolution.

If I weren’t an Israeli white (albeit Mizrahi) and semi-secular (only semi, since I still hold on to some “stupid” beliefs) man, I would write here that I propose that women from the “West,” as well as Muslim women from around the world, at least listen to what the Mipsterz women have to say. But I’m a white, semi-secular Israeli Jewish male, so I won’t write that.

This article was amended on May 13 to remove a quote that had been incorrectly attriubuted to Sana Saeed, editor of The Islamic Monthly. We apologize for the error.

From Jay Z’s 'Somewhere in America.'
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From Jay Z’s 'Somewhere in America.'
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From Jay Z’s 'Somewhere in America.'
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From Jay Z’s “Somewhere in America.”Credit: Sheikh Bake

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