In many western countries, the appearance of Muslim women in religious clothing (hijab, niqab, burka, khimar etc.) in public space triggers discussion. Opponents of the headscarf often argue that the hijab is a clear sign of oppression, Islamism and that women are forced into wearing one.1
Often, images of a woman wearing a headscarf appear in public magazines in connection with politically charged subject areas, such as, e.g. fundamentalism, the oppression of women and self-marginalisation. The current debate surrounding the burqa and the burkini is linked once again to these issues. Again, it involves both the visibility of women in public places and how this can be reconciled with the cultural ideas and ideals of the western world and secondly, the question of choosing openly or being forced into wearing a veil.
In this article about hijab-fashion, I would like to focus on the aesthetic practices of headscarf-wearing women on the Web 2.0. What is new about the subject matter of hijab style blogs is, on the one hand, the thematic focus and self-reflection about one’s own clothing/fashion and, on the other hand, the importance of presenting this via the media.
Young female hijab2 bloggers present themselves as apparitions of fashion imagery, carving out their own style niches, which are then documented, processed, organised and shared with others via networking processes from a photographic-aesthetic perspective. During this process, the media image practices themselves become part and parcel of the hijab style. These positive benefits and virtues of visibility are, however, undermined in a Western context by the negative attention many covered women receive from members of the public, politicians and the media precisely because of their visibility as Muslims. Viewed from their perspective, the problem is not visibility as such, but an issue of how best to manage this visibility. One means of dealing with this challenge is to develop an alternative range of images that contradict stereotypes about the hijab. In the course of creating their own visibility, they delineate themselves in two ways: on the one hand, from the rather stereotypical, discriminatory depiction of the public media; and, at the same time, from traditional and classic forms of religious depiction on the topic of the hijab and women within their own Islamic community.
Image-related practices are a key part of communication and self-thematisation in everyday life. Digital natives create images themselves; edit and organise them on their various platforms and exchange them continuously. Image production routines, such as setting up image editing programs on one’s own smartphone and the use of visual recording devices, have become part of everyday practice. On online platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr, which are becoming increasingly important, self-expression and communication take place almost exclusively via images.
In such hijab blogs, women address the topic of their aesthetic practices. They produce images or combine their own images with those of others to make new image arrangements. They are in a communicative exchange with other bloggers. Many well-known and successful hijab bloggers live in Western cities. In particular, a networked community featuring continuous exchange and mutual reports has been formed in the Anglo-American region. On the rather specialised sites, they blog about their clothing practices, present their own style and offer tips and guidance on various clothing practices. On image blogs, they produce image boards where they put together various images—both their own and those of others—to make overall arrangements. Hijab bloggers are also strongly networked and have a lively exchange of images. To a certain extent, the public media have already become aware of them and some online fashion magazines write reports about them. Commercial hijab blogging has greatly increased over the past few years. Some of them work with young designers and new Islamic fashion labels and have their own advertisements. (http://www.devotedlyyours.com/ , http://www.hautehijab.com/collections/hijab-scarves, http://naballahchi.blogspot.de/p/about-metodo-acerca-de-mi.html)
It is noticeable (though there are different characteristics) that there is a rather indirect and peripheral embedding of the religious perspective. The aesthetic and religious visual media on these hijab style pages comprise quotes from the Quran and moral and religious poems/prayers in text form, embedded as image files. They are edited, sometimes also translated, and inserted into the image cluster. This creates image overlaps and inserts of text passages into the image, which become an independent aesthetic unit.
Unlike on the Islamic pages of scholars or mosques that concern themselves with the subject of the headscarf (e.g. Islamweb.com, Umma.com), the embedded text passages on the image blogs rarely go into the topic of covering up as Islamic sources deal with it. Instead, they tend to make general statements that address moral virtues
The focus is on urban fashion, not (only) as the hijab in its religious or political dimensions, but, instead, as just one aspect of a fashionable and aesthetic overall arrangement, and not always the main topic.
Personal hijab style documentation on the blogs is strongly guided by the ideal types of fashion and advertising images found in periodicals, fashion magazines and street style blogs. They copy the aesthetic structures of ideal images in the media through their editing and arrangement. The fact that, for outsiders, it is not always clear which is the advertising image and which is someone’s own image shows that these are completely new dimensions of self-thematisation, which are not possible face-to-face. The close relationship between hijab fashion and other fashion is evident not only in the actions of producers, but also in the behaviour of consumers. The hijab blogger do not rely exclusively on Islamic shops and online stores for their purchases, but select from a wide variety of outlets, including mainstream fashion boutiques, online stores and street markets.
In such image collages, the presentation of a varied and individual modest lifestyle is constructed in images. A collection of Apps and tools make this possible.
Besides a verse from the Quran, or the image of a mosque, a new outfit or image of a well-known actress with a headscarf is presented. Such emergencies, however, provoke controversial debates. They often also encounter criticism within their own (conservative) Muslim community, for what is perceived as immoderate fashion-consciousness, self-promotion, and/or personal promotion through imagery, reblogging immoral pictures or propagating the enjoyment of consumption to an excessive extent and generally portraying a lifestyle contrary to the ‘values of the hijab‘. (Correct and proper Hijab, way2allah.com/yarb, August, 2014, the proper Hijab: not transparent, no make-up or jewellery, should cover all the body, should not be colourful or ornamented)
Some bloggers cannot live up to the pressure of expectation and withdraw, while others have developed strategies and techniques for excluding or ‘forewarning’ an ‘unwanted’ audience, e.g. through provocation itself. A wide and varied range of strategies is employed by females wearing headscarves to keep them safe, with any differentiation emerging at various levels. In media-image terms, they place themselves at a distance from public images, but they stand out within their own Muslim community due to differences in how aesthetic images are handled. They create their own style of Islamic fashion and an own style of media visibility.
- Article (2015) from the feminist Alice Schwarzer on banning headscarves: “The headscarf is the international flag of the Islamists who abuse Islam for their own political crusade” (http://www.aliceschwarzer.de/artikel/kopftuch-ein-lebensfernes-fatales-urteil-318599, August, 2016). [↩]
- In modern discussions, hijab refers to the Islamic headscarf/Veil and to a modest Islamic style. The Hijab-Bloggers use the term in different ways. [↩]