I’ve had the title and outline for this post in my drafts section for a few months and retrospectively I am glad that I didn’t write it earlier because my conclusion now is quite different from the position I had previously which will be explained later. Throughout the post, I will be writing interchangeably about the Muslim Fashion Industry and the blogging sphere so bear with me.
To start with, Instagram was the space where I first noticed the erasure of dark-skinned Muslim women (whether black or Asian) from the modest fashion industry. After several months of following quite a few Muslim fashion pages, as I was scrolling through my feed, the question ‘where are the dark-skinned models or Hijabi bloggers?’ popped into my mind. 90% of the people on the pages were either light skinned or fair in complexion.
At this time, I said to myself ‘this is probably not a race issue,’ there must be a reason for their absence and there is no need to make a mountain out of a molehill. Forgive my silliness but I genuinely went through quite a few reasons in my head to justify the absence of dark-skinned Muslim women.
The reasons included the following: “Maybe there weren’t a lot of Black Muslim women that wanted to model? or the companies didn’t know about them?”
Fast forward and several months later while having a conversation with a friend, she said to me, ‘Mahmoudat have you noticed that so and so shops only use light-skinned models on their pages?’ and the first thing I said when she asked that question was “Thank you, Lord! My observations have been vindicated! I am not the only one who has noticed.” By this point, I was following a wide variety of Hijabi Bloggers, model and Youtubers to know that the absence of the dark-skinned ones wasn’t necessarily by choice.
We have to recognise that bloggers who are fair or light in complexion are afforded privileges that their dark-skinned counterparts simply do not have. And I could say the same for the broader Youtube World or the normal Fashion industry because Muslim women tend to be at the bottom of that hierarchy. But the issue of colourism and anti-blackness is frustrating for me because I think we have a great opportunity with the Muslim Fashion Industry and Blogging world to do better and to be representative in line with the teachings of our religion. Here is our opportunity to do it how it should be done, but instead we are falling into the same perpetuation of colourism.
There are two distinct issues here. As a community and as an Ummah, we are still dealing with deeply entrenched issues of colourism and anti-blackness. A lot of mindsets are still stuck on the notion that fair skin or light skin equates to beauty and we largely celebrate Eurocentric ideals of beauty. The second issue is that a lot of Muslim brands whether consciously or unconsciously are perpetuating colourism by not affording dark-skinned models or bloggers the same opportunities.
Take a moment to think about your Instagram feed and the diversity of the models/ bloggers that the Muslim companies use? Off the top of my head, the only brands that I know consistently use dark-skinned models are Inayah and Mode.ste. Two companies out of how many? That is an absurd ratio. From a financial point of view as well, it makes no sense to me not to have accurate representation considering the products – whether they are hijabs, abayas or whatever else – are supposed to appeal to a wide consumer base of Muslim women.
Aside from noticing the erasure of dark-skinned models (black and Asian) from Instagram pages and websites in general, my first sickening exposure to colourism within the industry was while I was watching Dina Torkia’s BBC Three Documentary, “Muslim Beauty Pageant and Me,”. The documentary was based on Dina’s journey as a contestant on the International Muslim pageant- World Muslimah a two-week boot camp for contestants to prove their credentials as good Muslim role models. Imagine my shock as I witnessed one of the organisers give the African/ dark-skinned contestants lightening creams! I had to rewind and pause the scene just to let the irony of the moment sink in as well as the glaring hypocrisy that the contestants were being judged on ‘Islamic Values.’ Dina thankfully called it out but lo and behold that would not be the last of my experiences with the issue of colourism and anti-blackness in the modest fashion industry/ blogging sphere.
Around a year ago, YouTuber / Blogger, Habiba Da Silva posted a picture of herself at a wedding on her Instagram page which turned out to be a revelation because of the comments and the controversy that ensued afterwards. Examples of some of the insidious comments include:
“Why are you so dark? you look ugly.”
“Dark is not nice,”
“Dark does not suit you” and
“Here you look like a ni**er.”
Are you in shock right now? Because I couldn’t close my mouth as I read some of the comments but the joke is on me for thinking it was impossible for Muslims to write such despicable comments! Habiba made a video to address the issue and rightly so, but I kid you not, some people still had the audacity to express racist views in the comments section. Either completely missing the point of the video or just choosing to ignore it. So far I haven’t mentioned a specific community within the ummah because I genuinely think the issue of colourism, while more prevalent in some cultures and communities, spans across Muslim communities worldwide. But in this instance, it has to be mentioned, particularly because a lot of the comments above were from Arab Brothers and sisters. There is a lot to be said about the Arab superiority complex that seems to affect a few people so I’ll put this reminder here.
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”
In addition, I need people to miss me with the ‘we’re not racist because we love Bilal’ argument because true colours were on display in this instance. God forbid your favourite blogger has a tan then all hell breaks loose! I want to be balanced in my discussion so I am making it clear that most people denounced the racists’ comments under the picture, but the level of anti-blackness was significant enough for me to feel that this was an issue.
To some extent, the issue of colourism or anti-blackness within the modest fashion industry/ blogging sphere is illustrative of the general erasure of black Muslims from Islamic narratives. Hashtags such as #BombBlackHijabis, #BlackinMSA, #BeingBlackandMuslim and #BlackOutEid would not be needed if this wasn’t happening.
In conclusion, I mentioned earlier that I was glad I waited to write the article and this is due to the recent International Modest Fashion Festival in Toronto which was proof of how it can and should be done. It is just one festival and of course, it doesn’t cover all the issues that I’ve discussed above. But the representation that I saw with fashion designers, the stalls and models on the runway was a rarity and it gives me hope for the future. If you haven’t seen the pictures do check it out on Instagram. I have zero tolerance for racist and anti-black comments but going forward, I will no longer excuse the laziness and actions of prominent Islamic brands in their lack of diversity and I encourage everyone else to do likewise. It is imperative that we generate awareness about the experiences and erasure of our Black and dark-skinned Muslim sisters in the modest fashion industry and blogging sphere.
In the words of Maya Angelou and using Oprah Winfrey’s voice: “When you know better, you do better.”