Prior to her stepping down over anti-Israeli tweets, news that L’Oreal had featured their first hijab-wearing woman, Amena Khan, in a shampoo advert caused a stir on social media this week. The “history-making” decision was initially praised as just one of many measures that have sought to integrate minority communities, particularly Muslims into mainstream branding, from Revlon hiring YouTuber Dina Torkia and Vogue featuring hijab-wearing model Halima Aden, to Barbie launching their first doll in the image of American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Whilst Muslim women tend to feature more in such adverts than their male counterparts, this phenomenon is not limited to one demographic. Throughout modern history, all minorities have sought prominent positions of leadership or fame in an effort to increase their influence and promote acceptance.
It is based on this idea that Muslims, especially visibly Muslim women, are encouraged to seek out and embrace platforms that will let them be seen by millions as “normal” people, in an effort to defuse hatred and fear. The question is, does this actually work?
Celebrating the exception
Despite being a regularly toted idea, upon further scrutiny, it is clear that the idea of representation leading to empowerment has not always produced results. There are many instances where even when minorities reach extremely high public positions, public opinion fails to keep up. A recent example can be seen by the former US President Barack Obama, who was celebrated for being the first African American president, with journalists and analysts hailing a new era of history and the end of racism. Yet it was during his two terms in office that the Black Lives Matter movement was launched, in protest of the perpetual dismissal of discrimination and abuse within state institutions and rampant police brutality.
To the supposed new era of history, one can assess how much of a difference Obama made in public sentiment, given the election of the proven racist, sexist and elitist that is Donald Trump.
The inevitable result of the promotion of specific individuals, in absence of the principles as to why the “other” should be accepted, results in any successful persons being seen as the exception to the stereotypical norm. Rather than humanising the masses, representation creates an acceptance of a specific personality and hinges upon the individual possessing certain celebrated traits, only approved if deemed the ‘model’ Japanese citizen, the ‘educated’ black man, or the ‘beautiful’ hijabi makeup artist. Communities are infinitely diverse, such that not everyone will be featured in the mainstream. consequently, basing societal acceptance on representation is neither feasible nor effective.
Additionally, when it comes to Muslim women, there is a clear promotion of a certain segment of this demographic, largely a hijab-wearing, fashionable, photogenic social media star, with their profession usually revolving around their appearance and/or their stereotype-breaking abilities. The result: Muslim women that aren’t fashionable, that aren’t stereotype breaking, that may be more conservative, are relegated to the oppressed, submissive label once again.
So progress has been seen for a certain segment of society who have proven they are ‘just like everyone else’, but have not changed the fundamental issue: discrimination should not be tolerated.
An intolerance of values
The case of acceptance in society ultimately boils down to a discussion of values. When the cause of a group’s difference is deemed acceptable, so too are the individuals who practice it accepted. Take the LGBT community, a minority that has faced legal and social discrimination even in secular societies. It was not until recently, 2017 in the case of Australia, that the right to same-sex marriage and adoption has been entirely legalised. Despite popular figures in the music and entertainment industry identifying as gay since the 1970s, which played a role in mainstreaming their appearance, it was not until the principle of same-sex relations was accepted that rights were granted. When identifying as LGBT was justified as an expression of freedom, rationally legal between two consenting adults, and natural according to science (three validations that form the cornerstone of secular societies), only then was it considered the same as a heterosexual relationship.
Yet such a strategy will not work for the Muslim community, because Islam’s values contradict the bases used to justify differences. Islam does not advocate that individuals are free to act as they please and choose which obligations they fulfill. Wearing hijab, praying and subscribing to our Islamic duties are not choices we make because we are ‘free’, but rather out of submission. However, society will never accept submission as an appropriate reason for one’s actions, and consequently, only Muslims that emphasise freedom (or other reasons) as to why they fulfill their Islamic obligations will be given a platform.
This is evident in the case of prominent Muslim women, whose choice to wear hijab is always given undue attention, as well as those who say they wear it to express their identity or fashion. Similarly, they are praised for their ‘stereotype breaking’ behaviour because it appears to champion the values of liberty and independence from cultural or religious norms. Subtle compromise is endorsed, and largely tokenises women, with or without their consent.
With this in mind, it is impossible that any mainstream voice will be given to air conservative Islamic perspectives on issues. Not only will the Islamic perspective contradict the values held dear in Western liberal societies, but it will undermine them by posing an alternative way of life.
Do we just hide in our own communities?
Refusing to be part of the tokenising culture of representation that devalues aspects of Islam, does not mean that one must be calling for Muslims to hide away. Rather, the community must be savvy about what representation on our own terms means and what platforms will be useful to take advantage of while leaving problematic ones behind. A case-by-case analysis is needed, considering all possible outcomes.
Muslims must also concentrate on developing their own platforms for adequate representation and not falling into the temptation of watering down Islam for the sake of mass viewership. Our religion encourages hikma (wisdom) when informing other of Islam, not compromise.
But our community needs to wake up to the bigger picture. Islamophobia is not just limited to individuals, but also state policies that are not going to be affected by Muslims being featured in an advert for makeup or winning a sporting award. Strategies like Prevent in the UK and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the US arguably affect a greater proportion of Muslims than individual Islamophobic incidents, yet receive considerably less attention. This is an issue that representation will not solve; rather a debate on why such policies are implemented is needed to challenge this narrative.
And finally, we need to encourage our communities, our young people, in particular, to not draw our strength from seeing their faces in the media or the Internet. We need to harness and bolster our own inner strength, such that confidence in our identity is not drawn from being the same as everyone else, but from being different.
“Islam came as strange and will return as strange, so blessed are the strangers.”
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)