When I woke up to the election results in November while living abroad in a Muslim country, I facetiously wrote a Facebook post: "Does this mean I can't come back?"
I'm an American citizen, born and raised in the United States, but I had been living in Dubai for several months at that point. I felt disbelief at the election results, but I certainly didn't realize how real this fear would become. Fast-forward to two months later, and what had once been a joke to me began to actually materialize, with the newly elected president calling for a ban on travel from a selection of Muslim countries.
I don't wear hijab, so in theory I'm not instantly identifiable as Muslim, but with an Arabic name that's unfamiliar to most Western ears, I'm unfortunately among those who no longer bat an eye when stopped at the airport "at random." But this was different. Friends were forwarding me e-mails advising me to know my rights and prepare for an unusual "screening" process. Fortunately, none of that was needed in my case, but the fact that people felt compelled to send such warnings felt harrowing. After years of international travel, it marked the first time I was genuinely nervous about returning to my home country.
Even as recently as a year ago, I wouldn't have thought about penning an essay like this. I've worked at fashion and beauty publications for the past 10 years, but I've never really felt that my identity as a Muslim was an integral part of the conversation. I spent my days discussing the latest FDA-approved lasers, testing out foundation shades, interviewing celebrities — none of that felt like it qualified me to talk about politics or my cultural identity. And then, watching the past few months unfold, first from afar in Dubai and then more recently upon moving back to New York City, something changed. Being a Muslim woman now meant that simply "being" made me a part of the conversation, whether I wanted to be or not.
Yet I've also noticed something positive amidst all of the current uncertainty surrounding the Muslim experience in America. There's a bright spot in this darkness, and it can be found squarely in the fashion and beauty industries. In the past year or so, brands have undergone a subtle but perceptible shift. They're beginning to place more importance on inclusivity and diversity in their campaigns and messaging, and that has translated to greater representation of Muslim women, too.
As a young girl reading magazines, I'd feel elated if I spotted something so much as a Muslim-sounding name on the pages. It was rare. Now, young girls have role models like U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won an Olympic medal (and who also, by the way, happens to be the founder of the modestwear fashion line Louella). Last year, CoverGirl named Nura Afia its first ever Muslim hijabi as part of a diverse panel of ambassadors that preached "Lash Equality," sending the clear message that egalitarianism should extend far beyond mascara, too. In February of this year, modeling agency IMG announced that Somali-American refugee Halima Aden would be the firm's first hijab-wearing Muslim model. Modeling is a career path many Muslim women may not have even considered as an option, given industry standards of what a model "should" look like. But Aden is playing a role in changing that way of thinking, having already appeared on a CR Fashion Book cover and becoming a breakout model of the Fall 2017 season, notably stealing the spotlight at Kanye West's Yeezy Season 5 show.
Depictions of covered women as weak or disempowered are gradually being replaced with images that project confidence and strength. Nike, for example, recently announced plans to sell a lightweight hijab for their Muslim consumers (to be released next year) following a campaign showcasing female athletes in the Middle East. Or take Shepard Fairey's now-iconic illustration (based off of Ridwan Adhami's photo) of a Muslim woman wearing an American flag as her hijab with the words, "We the people are greater than fear" beneath it. Some may see it as a form of tokenism, but as someone who never would have expected to see a woman wearing hijab held up as an empowering, Rosie the Riveter-like symbol — especially during a defining time in our nation's history — I find it inspiring.
And non-homogenous depictions of what Muslim women look like have also become a bit more present in fashion and beauty. Tarte, for example, named the fiery-haired power lifter and beauty vlogger Laiba Zaid the face of its athleisure line. Sephora can barely keep Farsali Rose Gold Elixir (a serum created by Instagram-famous Farah Dhukhai and her husband) in stock. Clinique, Guerlain and Maybelline are all among the list of brands lining up to partner with Bengali-American YouTuber, Irene Khan. These are all examples of Muslim influencers who don't wear hijab, but also also don't shy away from letting followers know their faith. This representation of diversity as it exists within the Muslim community has been another refreshing change of pace.
Does all of this feel long overdue? Definitely. But it's coming at a time when creating awareness that we don't all fit in one box is needed more than ever. And I can see that now. Muslims and other minority groups aren't "the other" — we're a crucial part of the very fabric of what makes this country special. I'd spent years feeling that writing about fashion and beauty somehow disqualified me from commenting on greater political issues. Beauty is meant to be lighthearted. It's aspirational, sometimes fluffy escapism. Creating walls and refusing refugees, on the other hand, is not. At most, because there are relatively few Muslims in my line of work, my identity would come into play on rare occasions when my colleagues needed an unofficial "Muslim consultant" any time an Islam-sensitive question might arise. But seeing how fashion and beauty brands have begun to embrace representation of Muslim women — and how that increased visibility is changing the larger conversation — has reminded me just how uniquely positioned the industry is to be able to help break down boundaries.
At the same time, I understand how some people can see these images as opportunistic, a chance to capitalize on a buzzword. It speaks to why, for example, some people in the Muslim community were dismayed when they saw images of supermodel Gigi Hadid on Vogue Arabia's first cover, coyly posing behind an embellished veil in one shot, and then in a traditional hijab and abaya in another. While there are those who see it as a nod to Muslim culture (Hadid does have Palestinian roots and has even marched to protest Trump's immigration policies), others found it problematic. It's hard, they say, to grapple with the fact that women who do choose to wear the veil in everyday life and not just not just for a photo shoot are being discriminated against regularly. By one estimation, 69 percent of women who wear hijab have experienced at least one incident of discrimination.
Even further, according to Pew Research, about half of Americans think at least "some" U.S. Muslims are "anti-American," and a March 2016 poll showed that more than 50 percent then supported Trump's proposal of a ban as a temporary measure — I would be remiss to not acknowledge these facts. So if what the beauty and fashion industries can do during this pivotal and uncertain time is to make an effort to represent the Muslim story, whether in a rally or on the runway, those actions are going to be all the more powerful during this specific cultural moment.
I feel that on a personal level, too. As a writer, regardless of what beat I'm covering, I now feel a sense of responsibility to be a more present voice on behalf of those who don't have that privilege. I've been compelled to stop complaining about the fact that Muslims are often portrayed in a negative light (or left out entirely) by the media while ignoring the fact that I am part of the media. Having seen firsthand what is actually given space in editorial, this shift in the conversation is truly significant. Ten years ago, when I pitched a story related to Muslim-specific beauty at a major magazine, it was shrugged off. I was made to feel like faith — especially my own — didn't have a defined space in the beauty or fashion realm. So the fact that these very industries have become so open to including the story of Muslim women has been unexpected.
Being able to use my voice in order to highlight and contribute to inclusivity in the fashion and beauty industries right now is refreshing. I feel a responsibility to actively contribute to the cultural narrative, to speak up on exactly those subjects I'd once felt were "not my place." This is the moment when it finally feels less like I'm elbowing my way in, and more like I'm finally being saved a seat at the table. We still have a ways to go. That's not lost on me, but I feel encouraged and hopeful knowing that I'm a part of an industry that can shine a light on diversity during a time when we need it the most. We can play a part in helping to tear down those walls, so to speak.