Cultural appropriation and exotization take so many forms, but in light of the recent announcement by Nike that they’re going to produce an athletic wear hijab in the spring of 2018, I thought that in this essay I’d focus on the exoticization of hijab by the West.
In November of 2001, then-First Lady Laura Bush delivered a radio address asking the American people to back a military initiative against theTaliban, in the name of freeing oppressed women. The media campaigns that happened for quite a while afterward focused on oppressed women, and the most recognized symbols of Arab women’s oppression were the head coverings of Afghan women. The blue burka enforced by the Taliban and other variations of Islamic veils were splashed all over the media. One of the most notable such incidences was when TIME magazine released a special edition about women in Afghanistan in December 2001, and on the cover was an Afghan woman in hijab.
Time and again the hijab, and sometimes the face veil, are used by the Western media as shorthand for “Islamic subjugation and oppression of women”. Time and again the only time a veiled Muslim woman is shown in the Western media is in the context of reports on terrorism, tyrannical regimes, war, and female oppression. We veiled Muslims have grown used to this, and have learned to accept it. This is life as a Muslim in the West.
Now. Fast-forward to this week. The global sportswear company Nike, of Just Do It! fame, announced that it will be producing a hijab for athletic wear and will presumably be marketing them to Muslim women. Naturally, Nike has been doing an accompanying marketing campaign to draw Muslim attention. Meanwhile, Muslim-owned hijab and modest-wear companies have been selling and attempting to effectively market sportswear and regular hijabs for years. During all these years that such companies – many of which are based in the East – have been marching bravely along, producing veils that Muslim women the world over love to wear, the media has been portraying the hijab as an inherently oppressive garment that Muslim women hate to wear. But now that a multi billion dollar US-based company is wanting to make more billions off of us, we’re suddenly supposed to stand up and cheer, grateful for the attention?
Let’s be real. Nike isn’t in this to make a sociopolitical statement of solidarity with Muslim women. They aren’t doing this to help us. Nike is following in the footsteps of Dolce and Gabbana, attempting to tap into the pocketbooks of 1.6 billion Muslims the world over. Much of the publicity around this announcement is framed in terms of empowering veiled Muslim women, but in truth we have been empowering ourselves just fine without Nike’s greed. We’ve been producing our own beautiful, practical veils and other clothes for years. The real message behind Nike’s announcement and the resultant media flurry is not that Muslim women will suddenly be able to work out and play sports (spoiler alert: we’ve been athletic without any issue for years), but rather that the hijab is only acceptable and palatable to non Muslim Westerners when they produce it for us and profit off of it. When we veil on their terms, it’s ok. When we veil on ours, it’s oppressive.
This habit of taking aspects of Eastern cultures and religions and profiting off them is as American as apple pie. It is, however, considerably less palatable than apple pie to those of us whose cultural and religious symbols are being exploited. If this was really about empowering Muslim women, attention would have been given these past few years to the brands that Muslim women have been turning to for hijab-friendly active wear, including Capsters, Friniggi, Mu’mine, and ASIYA. These are Muslim owned brands by which Muslim women have been empowering other Muslim women. Yet somehow we are only considered truly empowered when the West does what we do, only better.
What actually oppresses veiled Muslim women is not the veil. It is the West’s troubling habit of invading our countries and installing puppet governments. What oppresses us is the media portraying us as weak, uneducated, and oppressed, not giving attention to positive Muslim accomplishments and instead drawing attention to those who attempt to hijack our religion just as they hijack airplanes, and refusing to accept our cultures and religion without first whitewashing them. That is what oppresses us. So, we don’t need your whitewashed veils. We have our own proudly Muslim-produced hijabs, and those are working just fine. You’re not empowering us, Nike. If anything, you’re oppressing us by exploiting our religious garments for money.