For many young Muslims, ‘modest fashion’ is more than just a hijab
The ‘modest fashion' industry is worth trillions of dollars globally. i-D explores how a new generation of Muslims are redefining what it means.
Ugbad Abdi, photographed by Zoë Ghertner for i-D's The Voice of a Generation Issue, no. 356, Summer 2019.
As Muslims around the world celebrated Eid last month, it served as a stark reminder that no element of our lives are exempt from change under lockdown. We were forced to take a more minimalist approach to exercising our faith, which, if we’re honest, has been a long time coming. Young Muslims are embracing traditions in new ways to align with the urgent need for us all to make sustainable choices in 2021 — for many, this falls under a redefinition of the the term ‘modesty’.
In 2018 alone, Muslims across the globe spent $2.2 trillion on ‘faith-inspired ethical consumption needs’. With around 1.8 billion Muslims on earth today, it’s undeniable that we’re a market that demands attention. As a consequence, modest fashion has taken off in recent years, and all the big hitters have got involved -- from ASOS delivering ‘modest fits’ to the ‘modest edits’ on sites like Net-a-Porter, it’s been nice to see Islamic lifestyle choices represented in mainstream fashion. But what does this spending mean for our duty towards sustainability, and how does that tie in with our understanding of modesty?
Many young Muslims I know tell me they’re choosing to buy from brands that plant trees when they make a purchase, and have long been favouring sustainably sourced glass over plastic. Graphic designer Zee said she feels it’s important she passes these values down to the next generation. “Being environmentally conscious is an important value I want to pass to my son, who is now two,” she says. “Islamically, we’re taught to look after Allah’s creations, and that’s all of them -- not just humans, but the trees and animals. It’s our job to realise that purpose and respect it.”
“The commercialisation of the Muslim group could eventually mistake religious practices with material consumption. It could potentially create this idea that, ‘In order to be a part of this group, to identify with it, I have to be fashionable.’”
Defining what modesty meant to me as a British Pakistani muslim woman has been a confusing, enlightening journey. Often the understanding of modesty is reduced to wearing hijab, and now more than ever we have to fiercely ensure that right is protected and celebrated. But when I first tried to wear a hijab at 16, I found that cloaking society’s conventional idea of what defines my femininity -- my hair -- didn’t personally correlate to my understanding of modesty, or what defined my ‘beauty’ as a woman.
My femininity wasn’t tangled in my hair and it isn’t tied to the cliched narrative of the classic femme. In fact, the idea that my femininity was so strictly confined to one definition made me so angry that I went to the hairdressers, got a buzz cut and went back to the drawing board of defining my relationship with modesty as a Muslim.
“I think modesty can be weaponised and throughout my life, I have felt extremely policed by the idea of it,” Fariha Róisín, author of How To Cure a Ghost and Like A Bird says. “The way we interact with modesty very much comes from the perspective of the male gaze, in the sense that comments like ‘men will be men’ prioritises men in this context, but not women or femme folks -- though I understand that Muslim men are equally asked to 'be modest', we also have to accept that men are treated differently in Muslim communities and that distinction is unfair and deeply patriarchal.”
My own early life experiences were scattered with racism and sexism and they left me feeling defeated as a young, marginalised, queer Muslim woman of colour. At 16, I relented to what I saw as the societal idea that power was a masculine entitlement and as consequence, I found myself dressing like men in the conventional sense. My idea of modesty became equivalent to my expression of having power and autonomy that wasn’t dictated by the male gaze. So, I began to wear large tracksuits so that I could sit with my legs open instead of uncomfortably pressed together, decorating myself in lots of layering, worn with hand-me-down jewellery from my grandmother.
“We have to accept that certain people want to live differently and that the beauty of Islam and Muslims is that we are not a monolith in any sense of the word.”
Clothes are like temporary tattoos, so I revelled in expressing my heritage by using my body as a canvas, taking inspiration from South Asian and Islamic influences: tasbihs and keffiyehs, heavy 24k gold anklets dressed with Air Force 1s, henna tattoos and white jumpsuits worn with layers of freshwater pearl necklaces scooped from the Arabian sea on the coast of Karachi, chokers from Lahore made from crystal beads in every colour draped over second-hand hoodies. I wanted to look untouchable and too intricate to put in a box.
Now, a shift is happening across the board, and it’s a relief. We’re more conscious of the need for kindness to the planet to be a primary priority. Muslims are thinking about their charitable acts in a more nuanced way, making steps to help lower our environmental footprints and taking action to help other marginalised communities. Ra’ed Khan is the founder of Road to Freedom, a UK non-profit organisation delivering aid to conflict zones worldwide. “The joy I get in doing charity work… nothing else can bring that joy,” he says. “I love that Islam teaches us to be charitable, to do as much in the world as we can whilst we’re here.
“While I don’t tend to do the practical side of it -- for example, I don’t fast as much as I should, or always pray five times a day -- I try to go above and beyond to help a person in need. It was harder for my parents' generation to do as much in terms of international charity, given they moved to a new country at the age I’m at now, in 70s England, to build a new life. They practised faith in a more traditional and regimented way. Thanks to them, my generation has the foundation, time and resources to do so much more.”
17-year-old student Soraya notes the generational conflict that comes to play when trying to make more sustainable choices with her style: “It’s difficult, because my parents have very different ideas around second hand clothes. If I go to charity shops or look on apps like Depop, they’re against it because they don't know ‘where the clothes have been’. Obviously my reaction has been that it’s better for the environment.”
Most working-class Muslim folk like me have little choice but to get inventive with clothing anyway, since the modest fashion market remains a pretty exclusive club. The brands selling the garments exciting me for the first time in my life are often out of my price range. It’s bitterly disappointing and likely a result of the fashion industry’s assessment of the Islamic influencer world, the spending power of the UAE, and the subsequent assumption that we all have the same financial freedoms.
Professor Reina Lewis, author of Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures, told Business of Fashion: “The commercialisation of the Muslim group could eventually mistake religious practices with material consumption. It could potentially create this idea that, ‘In order to be a part of this group, to identify with it, I have to be fashionable.’ In other words, it can potentially price people out of religious participation.”
One glaring example of exclusion in the modest wear trend that comes to mind was when a sportswear brand released their modest swimwear collection in 2019. They were lauded with praise: Representation! Inclusivity! Many of us were excited until we saw the £500 price tag. A brand representative commented: “To us, [it] shows the power of innovation to invite all women to discover the joy of sport.” I scratched my chin at the idea that all women could afford to ‘discover the joy of sport’ with that price tag.
“Modesty can't be a one-size-fits-all,” notes Fariha. “We have to accept that certain people want to live differently and that the beauty of Islam and Muslims is that we are not a monolith in any sense of the word.”
For me, modesty comes down to empowerment, and my clothes tell that story. These days I often go vintage, wearing my grandmother’s outfits from her youth. Wearing a piece of history and keeping it minimal makes me feel at home in myself, and I’m not the only one. Young people are shifting the focus to minimalism over fast fashion, and I hope the movement is contagious. “I try to be self-aware by actively thinking of ways to consume smarter,” Soraya adds. “It’s important to meet my own needs and wants without overindulging.”
More so, young Muslims today understand the importance of our personal choices and the collective urgency of looking after the planet -- because right now, the future of our legacy feels delicate.
As Fariha puts it: “I want to see more of us leading the call toward more sustainable living -- looking at you, the Gulf -- and understanding how to start moving toward more anti-capitalist states of being, which inevitably means changing our relationship to capitalism. I'm still defining what modesty is for myself, to understand how I fit into that, without the specter of an entire community's judgment or concern.”