Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Real Reason British Women Are Turning to Islam (And It's Not Because They Aren't Modern)

By Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj 
Postgraduate student in Theology at the University of Birmingham
Posted: 31/01/2013 14:30
Published: Huffington Post, UK - All Rights Reserved, Copyright 

'Make Me a Muslim', a documentary on British women who have converted to Islam which aired on BBC3, addresses an issue that continues to be mulled over following on from the 2011 census results. The documentary looked at women from varied racial, ethnic and social backgrounds, and gave anecdotal accounts of the unique situation and struggles faced by each woman in the wake of her decision to accept Islam, as a faith as well as a way of life. The producer of the programme, Emily Hughes, in a post on BBC's TV Blog, made it a point to mention that she hoped to "to challenge stereotypes about Islam," a lofty but commendable aim. The question remains, was this aim achieved, and what does the documentary tell us about the perception of Muslims in Britain overall?

For a documentary on BBC3, the standard of 'Make Me a Muslim' was about as high as can be expected. Critiques of style and form aside, one of the most obvious shortcomings of the documentary was the choice of presenter, British model and 'born-Muslim' Shanna Bukhari. Whether or not Shanna was chosen purely for added entertainment value, given the contrast between her approach to Islam and that of most Muslim converts as well as the controversy she faced after wanting to represent Britain in the Miss Universe pageant in 2011, is for the viewer to decide. While watching the programme, however, it was hard not to keep asking the question: why choose someone who does not prioritise Islam as a way of life to learn more about Muslim women for whom Islam is everything? Shanna Bukhari's inability to relate to the most basic of Islamic customs was cringe-worthy, but as some commenters on the blog pointed out, even more disappointing was this extended focus on the presenter's own internal conflicts instead of the wider issues faced in Britain by converts and Muslims in general. In that sense, despite the best intentions of its makers, 'Make Me a Muslim' unfortunately did not to do what it said on the tin.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the documentary stemmed from the attitude of its presenter. Shanna lamented the judgment that Scottish traveller Alana placed upon her clothing, yet refused to leave behind her own prejudices and preconceptions in the making of this programme (perhaps unsurprising, considering she is a model by profession and not a journalist). One of the most telling signs of Shanna's West-centric attitude was her description of herself as 'not pretty' when wearing the Muslim headscarf, and no thought was given, nor any comment made afterwards, to explore further what "pretty" actually means, or that it can mean different things to different people, individually as well as within cultures and faiths, or especially that the Western attitude of "hair + make-up + revealing clothing = pretty" is something to be questioned in itself. More than looking pretty for one's own expression of femininity (something which many Muslims, scholars or otherwise, will confirm that Islam is not in conflict with), this disproportionate, nigh on exploitative emphasis on a woman's appearance within Western society does in fact happen to be one of the causes for British women converting to Islam, a point confirmed by Lauren Booth after she adopted Islam in 2010. Not only is this key point largely overlooked by the documentary, it is undermined further by the attitude of the presenter.

Unsurprisingly, some comments on Emily Hughes' blog post were unsympathetic towards the women whose stories were discussed; others were simply nasty. Despite being ideally placed to do so, 'Make Me a Muslim' failed to explore in greater detail the real status of women in Islam, and the fact that this, and not romantic love, brainwashing, or delusion, is what continues to attract non-Muslim British women to the faith. The programme stopped short of discussing how this paradigm shift is a rejection of the superficial, objectifying attitude towards women so prevalent in Western society, of the page-3 culture which permeates into a programme like Countdown (where a maths genius feels the need to force-feed her physical attractiveness to the public through an endless selection of short, tight dresses), in exchange for an attitude which emphasises that one's self-worth is based on the internal and not the superficial, on intellect and character and not on bra-size and make-up. It's the kind of nuance which a 'Modern Muslim' like Shanna Bukhari has great difficulty recognising, in spite of being born into Islam.

And within these labels is hidden another elephant in the room which continues to be overlooked, this polarisation of 'Modern Muslim' versus 'Conservative Muslim' within British discourse, as though a Conservative British Muslim were necessarily something "un-modern", backward, continually in need of (or in opposition to) intellectual and societal progress. Nowhere in the programme is this more obvious than when Shanna meets Ayesha, a revert who is a model and 'Modern Muslim' just like herself. As a Modern Muslim, Ayesha is described as being cool and fun, seemingly all the things that a Conservative Muslim isn't or cannot be. Yet today millions of Muslims in Britain, and millions more around the world, know and practise Islam as a faith which emphasises steadfastness in values but also, far from being opposed to modernity, a faith which adapts and moves with the times. An entire generation of fun, cool, intelligent practising Muslims who have been raised and educated in Britain see no conflict between Islam and modernity. Yet through Muslims such as Shanna Bukhari (ill-informed of their faith, conflicted within themselves, and portraying this confused self-identity as a representation of other British Muslims), these labels and their negative influences will regrettably continue for a long time yet.

'Underwraps': Muslim Models Maintain Modesty With Fashion Agency

Religion News Service  |  By Omar Sacirbey Posted:

(RNS) Ever since she was a little girl, Savannah Uqdah longed to pose for pictures and strut down a runway with flashbulbs bursting. But as an observant Muslim who didn't want to violate Islam's tenets on modesty, the aspiring model assumed that designers wouldn't hire someone who was unwilling to show some skin.

Uqdah shelved her modeling dreams and instead expressed herself through the fashions she wore.

Nailah Lymus started her fashion label, Amirah Creations, in 2004. She has met and heard about lots of Muslim women who were interested in modeling, but didn't pursue it because they assumed they would be asked to model clothing that violated their beliefs.

So during last February's New York Fashion Week, Lymus launched Underwraps Agency, which connects modesty-minded models -- both Muslim and non-Muslim -- with designers.

"I wanted to promote modest attire -- that's really what the agency is about -- and not feeling like you have to show everything to be a model and to make it far," said Lymus, who lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Since then, her agency has contracted with four Muslim female models, getting them work in photo and video shoots, as well as runway shows during Fashion Week.

One of them is Uqdah, whom Lymus knew from the Brooklyn mosque they both attended, who will be modeling for the plus-size label Ann Nahari during the upcoming Fashion Week (Feb. 7-14) in New York.

"I was like, where do I sign [up]?" Uqdah said. "It was a dream come true."

For now, Lymus is mostly (but not entirely) focusing on Muslim models because she believes Muslims are underrepresented in the industry. But she also believes that the demand for modest clothing cuts across religions and cultures, and ultimately wants Underwraps to be known more for its modesty than its Muslim orientation.

As an example, she points to Kylie Bisutti, a Victoria's Secret model who abruptly retired from lingerie modeling last February, citing her Christian beliefs and desire to be a good wife. She still models less racy clothing.

"I don't want to be known as a sex symbol or lingerie model. I desire to be known as a woman who fears the Lord," Bisutti wrote on her website last year.

Islamic views on modeling vary. Scholars from the venerable Darul Uloom Deoband seminary in India issued a fatwa in 2010 condemning female modeling as un-Islamic because it puts the female body on exhibit. A few fashion magazines in some Muslim countries will not show women's faces.

But Imam Talal Eid, an Islamic law expert in Boston and former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said modeling is acceptable as long as the models maintain their modesty.

"You have to show the clothes. You can't have fashion without models," said Eid, whose daughter is a designer with Calvin Klein in New York.

Rania Iswarani, editor at the Muslim style blog Fashfaith.com, disagreed that modeling draws improper attention to women. "People perhaps do pay attention to them, but NOT to their skin. The body is covered. So these people are attracted to the clothes Muslim women are wearing," Iswarani wrote in an email.

Either way, industry veterans say there's a need for modesty-minded models.

"I'm in constant need of models for my company and a Muslim modeling agency would help me profusely," said Melanie Elturk, CEO and chief designer of HauteHijab.com, an online Muslim fashion retailer in Chicago. "We do display the vast majority of our products on dress forms instead of models to try and avoid any controversy that Muslim models may stir up, but some products just need to be displayed on a human body in order to show what the piece will look like."

Underwraps' Lymus argues that there's greater demand for modesty than perhaps the fashion industry realizes, and that it will need models to respond. Since launching Underwraps, Lymus has received more than 400 queries from aspiring Muslim models from several different countries, including the U.S., Indonesia, Great Britain and Australia.

"There are a lot of individuals, Muslim or not, who wear modest clothing," Lymus said. "You're going to be at your best when you're comfortable in your own skin, not when your uncomfortable with what you're wearing."

Lymus' agency and Muslim designers are banking on what they believe is a huge market for fashion in the Muslim world. Barjis Chohan, a British Muslim designer who studied under the legendary Vivienne Westwood, estimated the market at $96 million, noting that New York-style fashion weeks have started in cities like Istanbul, Cairo, Karachi and Jakarta.

"As a model, you want to be as marketable as possible," Lymus said. "And if you're a Muslim model who might wear a headscarf, you're limited because not many designers want models with headscarves."

But she added, "I haven't launched the agency to conform to what the existing industry is doing."

There are many famous Muslim models who didn't worry about religious restrictions, including:

  • Iman Abdulmajid, born in Somalia, considered the first black supermodel.
  • Yasmeen Ghauri, born in Montreal to a Pakistani Muslim father and a German mother, modeled for Victoria's Secret, Versace, Chanel and other major brands.
  • Fawzia Mohamed of Egypt, who represented her country in the Miss Universe 2006 pageant.
  • Wafah Dufour, better known as Osama bin Laden's niece, who posed provocatively for GQ in 2006.
  • Hanaa Ben Abdesslem, a Tunisian supermodel whose clients include Lancome and Benetton.
  • Fatima Siad, Somali-Ethiopian model from Boston, who placed third on "America's Next Top Model" in 2008