The first time I met Ascia al Faraj, she was posing for a picture with a group of hijab-wearing bloggers outside the shows at New York Fashion Week. If her head wrap differentiated her from the average New York showgoer, her unique style differentiated her from her "modest fashion" influencer peers. In a sea of regal, princess-y dresses and flowing skirts, Faraj's armful of tattoos, penchant for sneakers and habit of wearing labels like Off-White made her stand out amongst other Muslim fashion bloggers.
It's not just her take on streetwear-inflected modest style that makes Faraj unique in the influencer space. With a healthy 2.3 million followers on Instagram, her feed is full of the meticulously art-directed fashion and lifestyle shots you'd expect from a social media star. But she has a subtle way of keeping things real, by not editing out a pimple in an otherwise very glam makeup shot or speaking openly about her history with eating disorders. The result is a persona that strikes the coveted perfect balance between aspirational and relatable.
Part of her widespread appeal stems from the fact that Faraj is, in many ways, the quintessential global citizen. Raised by a Kuwaiti father and American mother, Faraj spent formative years in Kuwait, the U.K. and the U.S., where her parents met at Emory University. She initially started blogging alongside her husband Ahmad as one-half of "The Hybrids," and a few years later has a host of small businesses to call her own, including babywear line Desert Baby and soon-to-launch K-beauty skin-care retailer Seoul Kool. On top of that, Faraj has worked with brands like Kenzo and TAG Heuer and collaborated on designs with Aigner and popular Middle Eastern brand Riva, as well as starred in Arabic reality show "Sadeem" in addition to being a mother of two.
I hopped on the phone with Ascia to hear her thoughts on redefining Muslim fashion, bringing K-beauty to the Middle East and what Westerners get wrong about Arab women. Read on for the highlights from our conversation.
How did you get started as a blogger?
At the time I started, there weren't many Middle Eastern women who were very public in media, and if they were, they were actresses. I wanted to put a face to regular Arab women. I had no idea what it would lead to. At this point in my life — I'm 28 now — I thought that I'd be teaching 101 classes in college. I was meant to become a professor. I never thought that this is what my life would be like. But it's a lot more fun.
Can you explain why showing your face was uncommon when you started?
For years, we've had a "harem mentality." Not that we have harems of any form here in Kuwait! But we use the term to refer to keeping women out of the public eye and safeguarding them from the wandering eyes of men. That romanticized idea of Arab men being possessive about their women tends to be true, even in modern culture. We're further away from it now, but at the time that I started about five years ago, we were still very much in the midst of it. Women weren't really in media.
How did you start covering your head, and when? I noticed your mom doesn't cover hers.
In Kuwait, we don't wear the abaya like the rest of the countries in the [Gulf Cooperation Council] do, and we don't have to cover our heads by law, like you would find in Saudi Arabia. But my father's side is quite religious, and I was going through a phase of trying to understand where I stood within Islam and the confines of religion. So, I covered. The week that I started, my mom didn't speak to me, because she had been fighting so long to keep me doing what I wanted to do without having to worry about the confines of culture or religion.
A couple months after I put it on, I was really miserable and didn't want to wear it anymore. But my dad was like, "Well, it's kind of a contract between you and God. Once you have it on you're really not supposed to take it off." I was like, "Okay, I'm going to wear it the way I want to wear it." The way that I have it on now I feel that it's more cultural than it is religious.
I try to stay away from calling it a hijab, because I feel like there are women that represent the hijab a lot better than I do. Hijab means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but within the Gulf region, once you wear a hijab, there are certain parts of your body that need to be constantly covered, including your neck, ears and wrists. Because I don't fall into that, I don't feel it would be proper for me to call it that.
Is it more about being culturally Muslim than it is about religious belief of your own?
That would be fair to say. I think anyone who covers fluctuates about the meaning of it. You find different reasons to wear it each time you wake up in the morning. You wear it because it's what you're comfortable in, or for some people, because that's what God would want you to do or what religious texts tell you to do.
Have you gotten much pushback from the fact that you do show your neck and forearms and have tattoos?
I get a shit-ton of negative responses to it! I think part of being an influencer or blogger is pushing the boundaries of what people are used to seeing. To me, tattoos are a freedom-of-choice thing, but they don't very easily fit into the confines of Islam in its mainstream form. In the sect that I grew up in, it's completely normal. We have some rules about what you are and are not allowed to tattoo, but other than that, it's fine.
It's kind of introducing my sect of Islam to a larger following, and that larger following is not necessarily okay with it. And the way that I cover is kind of new, as well. It's a modern take on what Arab women and women within Islam represent now. Because Islam is not just a religious community, it's also a cultural community.
What does modesty mean to you?
The tagline that I feel really represents what I try to put forth is that you cover what makes you comfortable. I don't think that there should be a rule to it. It's a feminist approach to taking control of your body.
So, every time someone comes to me being like, "You need to cover your neck or your wrists if you're representing this," I get really irritated. Because for me, it's about taking back my body and not making it something that mainstream media has sexualized. If a woman would like to sexualize her body, that's one thing. That's what she's comfortable showing. I think at either end of the spectrum, it's about what makes you comfortable.
Do you find yourself paying more attention to trends in your region, or do you keep close tabs on the global industry?
We think of ourselves in the Middle East as being five years behind the Western world. We're constantly trying to play catch up. That gap is getting smaller and smaller now that we have social media. But keeping our finger on the pulse is really important to make sure that we can play at an international level rather than just a regional one.
That brings me to Seoul Kool, which intends to bring K-beauty to Kuwait. Did that develop because you saw K-beauty explode in the West and knew there was a gap in the market locally?
It's a gap in the market here, so it makes business sense for us to try and bring it here first or fastest. But honestly, it was kind of born out of necessity. My business partner was really familiar with K-beauty. I had not paid much attention to it because I was so hesitant to try new products on my really sensitive skin, so I just ignored everything else and used what I knew worked. When she introduced it to me and it really changed my skin, it was kind of life-changing. I wanted to bring it here.
The business was originally supposed to launch in December, but the way that our bureaucratic system is set up here, all the paperwork moves extremely slow. We had the option of importing things in hand luggage and selling them in small quantities, but I didn't want to do something unless it was done correctly. We've had to go through the whole process of getting everything registered. We're waiting on like three more papers to come through and then we get to launch everything from the website and the store space. I'm super excited.
You also recently launched your Modest by Ascia collection. What were you hoping to accomplish with that line?
That's in collaboration with Riva, which has about 50 stores within the region. It outsells Zara in Saudi Arabia; it's a really popular retailer here for modest dressers. It's also a little bit easier on our climate with fabrics that work in the heat.
I've done clothing collaborations with them for the past four years, but this is the first time that it's been in its own section in stores that gets replenished every few months. For this one I was trying to make streetwear more accessible. I think streetwear in its essence was meant to be accessible, but then it was "elevated" in the fashion industry and made really expensive.
How do you balance the desire to create accessible pieces with concerns about the ethics of manufacturing and sustainability?
We were just speaking about that today. I don't have the access to what [Riva's] factories are like or the sustainability measures they're taking. I think I'm probably going to move away from fast-fashion, which is what Riva really is, and toward more sustainable projects. Because for me, how things are sourced is really important. For my own brand, Desert Baby, we make sure that everything is ethically sourced, from our fabrics to the workshops. All of it is about job creation within the Middle East. I'd like to have that control over the fashion things I'm doing, as well, because we haven't really had that up to this point.
Does that also influence how you personally shop or is that more to do with the lines you work on?
It influences how I personally shop at least 80 percent of the time. Where I'm at now is trying to be a lot more conscious about my decisions in buying and disposing. I'm of two worlds right now, where I'm trying to participate in trends and be up-to-date and current, and then on the other end of it, I don't want to be leaving nothing to my children. It's all about consciousness this year.
I know you're on a new reality show, too. Why were you interested in being involved with "Sadeem?"
It's so weird to have all the things that I'm doing lined up. Because when you work on it day to day, you're like "Okay, this is what I'm doing now; then this is the next thing." But when you line it up, I'm like, "Holy shit." I feel like I need a nap.
It just makes you sound really impressive!
I feel like it makes me sound really scatterbrained! [Laughs] But yes, that's another thing I do. It's a reality show looking for the next big content creator. We were looking for someone who makes high-quality stuff, but might not have the biggest following, which is hard to get now in this super-saturated market of influencers, and give them a platform.
What about it was so exciting to you? I know at one point you really shied away from video, but it seems like you're doing quite a bit now.
When I do it in English, I really like video. It's the demand for video in Arabic that was daunting for me. Because grammatical mistakes in English are, I think, easier to let go of than grammatical mistakes in Arabic. They just sound so much worse if you fuck it up. It's hard for me, coming from being a native English speaker where not very much is gendered, to being in a language that's very gender-oriented. Like, I didn't know that tables were female. I don't understand why they need to be female. But they are, in Arabic!
Anyway, that's just the American part of me talking, and I decided to throw caution to the wind and say, "Screw it. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake."
As someone who bridges those worlds, what's one thing you wish readers in the West understood about Arab women?
We're not victims. It's not fair for me to say that no women in the Arab world are in need of help, but I think the vast majority of Arab women are quite empowered. Our fight is a little bit different than the West's fight is. For us, it's about going to court in a custody battle and really being heard. For Saudi women, it's the right to drive. Our milestones may look strange from a Western perspective, but to us, they're massive. Empowerment, to us, is something slightly different.