“I am free by being not sexy”: Faith and Fashion Panel at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 10 December 2019
Image Credits: Los Angeles Magazine

There is a disheartening tendency to politicise the intersection of faith and fashion — the opposition to modest clothing in society is often inseparable from the rhetoric of security and integration. In France, such a discourse is bolstered by an official ban on full-face veils in public spaces, which has ingrained a monolithic understanding of modest clothing, one that is inextricably, and tenuously, linked to danger and threat.

Seeking to meaningfully tackle the gaping disconnect between the politically-charged top-down narrative and the role of modest fashion as an individual choice and means of expressing one’s identity and faith, the Cambridge Union welcomed four speakers at the Faith and Fashion Panel: Mariah Idrissi, who was the first hijab-wearing model to be signed to “Select” Models, featured in a global H&M campaign in late 2015; Shannie Hammouda set up London-based Umma Models in 2017 after noticing a gap in the market for an agency representing all models, not just Muslims, who practise modesty; Lamia Khan, co-founder of a London-based photography collective Muslim Sisterhood that captures and archives young Muslim women in the city; and Reina Lewis, Professor of Cultural Studies at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, who has also published several books on this issue. Each with their own experiences and insights to share, it was a unanimous clarion call for the normalisation of modest fashion, which sees resistance both politically and within the fashion industry as well.

Not unlike any other cultural element in society, fashion fulfils the integral role of bridging an individual’s identity, faith and place in society.

As Reina pointed out, it has continually evolved over time. “Modest fashion is having a fashion moment — 10 years ago, it’s hard to find something similar in stores. Today, [photographers and the modelling industry] have curated a space for models to show their religious identity through fashion.” Individual choices are historically and spatially located; Shannie succinctly broke it down to the transition from the belief that “I am free by being sexy” to “I am free by not being sexy.” Even 20 years down the road, an individual dressing modesty could be covering the same parts of their body but doing it differently. This is certainly encouraging, but Mariah, Shannie and Lamisa swiftly injected a sense of realism back into the conversation. Mariah lamented that there are few or no models dressing modestly in the spotlight and because “you don’t see others doing this, you don’t consider this an option”, engendering perpetual anxiety over the choice of clothing for Muslim individuals. The fight for representation is important because not only is there “no one to tell you how to dress as a Muslim”, their fashion choices are also politicised and subject to public scrutiny due to stereotype perpetuated by the media. This was particularly felt by Shannie, who experienced first-hand the disconnect in expectations of her fashion choices when she converted to Islam compared to that of her mother’s, a Christian who also dresses modestly.

“I am free by being sexy” to “I am free by not being sexy.”

“Fashion is a shared currency and a dialogue that happens visually.”

Through non-verbal symbols, be it the type or brand of clothing donned, Reina argued that fashion is a solution in how it reframes modesty as “part of modern society, a riposte to the negative stereotype of terrorism”. The politicisation of modest dressing as a security issue is something all speakers express annoyance with, and Lamisa argued that the discourse should be deconstructed in order to “empower ourselves not for the Western gaze, but to carry the community”. Problematically, though modest fashion is secular and can be practised by anyone regardless of culture, religion, age or gender, stereotyping by the media has led to a limited mainstream understanding of it to just the Muslim community. With greater visibility, modest fashion has immense potential in serving as an effective conduit for inter-faith dialogue, bringing anyone who practises or believes in modest fashion to contribute to the dialogue.

Yet, modest fashion as represented by these models, who have finally made a breakthrough in the industry, should never be prescriptive. In carving out space for themselves through social media, models face greater scrutiny on their choice of attire as they “define” what modest fashion means. Mariah affirmed that “what we wear is making popular culture” but concomitantly, models are vulnerable to cancel culture, whereby they are condemned online for not adhering to a socially or religiously acceptable standard of modesty. Accountability is desirable but “condemning or supporting someone” should be in service of ensuring an accurate representation of the faith. Agreeing with Mariah that “the hijab is a concept”, Shannie stated that the increasing normalisation of modest fashion is causing an issue amongst Muslims too — “what a hijab is, when you should wear it, how you wear it, etc”, which differs based on culture. Some Muslims are comfortable with revealing a little hair at the front of their forehead while for others, the hijab must strictly cover all hair. To this, Lamisa noted that “travel helps with exposing yourself to different narratives” as there is a broad range of Muslims in society with different ways of practising Islam. Policing from both co-religionists and non-Muslims can be stressful but models should not succumb to societal pressure to adjust their fashion choices. After all, fashion is a constant process of negotiation and ultimately contingent on what one is comfortable with.

Image Credit: Flickr

There is also concern over tokenism, which Shannie condemns as “clickbait”. “People don’t take care of Muslim women and fashion designers in the modelling industry. All agencies have just one model [who practise modest fashion] and there is no real negotiation — modelling agencies are very powerful and fix requirements on what [models] have to show.” The profit-making agenda of the fashion industry results in the indifference to such a niche area in fashion and in response to restrictions to the models’ creative spaces, the speakers concurred on the responsibility of models themselves to represent their faith well. Shannie pointedly remarked, “A headscarf on a model who doesn’t wear headscarves? No, it’s got to be authentic. Like blackface? And now you want to do it with hijab? I don’t think it’s fair.”

Fashion is no longer just a personal choice for models as their fashion choices have the ability to influence their followers — Shannie humorously described the industry as “a couple of leaders but lots of sheep”.

Mariah used to take issue with being marketed as “The Modern Muslim Woman” as it did not quite encapsulate her traditional beliefs but later came to terms with it as a spokesperson of her faith in the industry. “You can not wear the hijab but you should have the responsibility and courtesy to explain to people.” Carrying oneself with integrity thus becomes a form of bottom-up resistance in some ways, with Lamisa raising the need to “make demands and stand by them”, including prayer space, and Reina suggesting the exploring of “ways to make modest fashion a legitimate career” so people in power eventually recognise the talent pool and tap into its potential.

“A headscarf on a model who doesn’t wear headscarves? No, it’s got to be authentic. Like blackface? And now you want to do it with hijab? I don’t think it’s fair.”

Throughout the discussion that ventured into some personal territories, I realised that the intersection of faith and fashion was grounded in mindfulness and self-awareness — how might one’s fashion choices shape their identity, connection to their faith and navigation of society. Responding to a question on the reconciliation of the fashion industry’s capitalist goals with the lessons of Islam, it was evident that the speakers have been conscious in their choices, be it dressing more sustainably or making demands and being a good representation of the faith. Shannie joked, “Gucci is already rich! Why not get another brand of the same quality, which is also representative of our cultural values?”

The sooner we appreciate modest fashion, the quicker we can de-couple politics from fashion and faith.