I fully fully back the importance of representation. I get it. I get that it matters who we see because that impacts what we can imagine. It hurts to be unimaginable. It hurts to never be an image equated with beauty. It matters that more and different body types and shapes and colours with different features and hair textures and skin tones get visibility and get platformed to expand and destabilise what ‘beautiful’ means; to reject the control ‘beauty’ has over our beings. I truly believe that children the world over would be able to imagine more hopeful and dynamic futures for themselves if they saw themselves as valid and existing complexly in the world.
Having said that, I have one caution and central fear: we cannot equate our liberation with our inclusion into the bracket of [beauty].
I say that mainly because trite as it sounds, beauty is an industry. It matters which bodies and people get represented as beautiful and as fashionable, but it also matters that beauty and fashion are businesses.
I fear that our inclusion on glossy magazine covers and advertisements is more about businesses accessing markets they’d previously overlooked so they can capitalise off our money. Of course there are small businesses out there, there are people platforming their bodies and their own beauty-standards at the grassroots. But the pernicious strength of neoliberalism rests in its capacity to assimilate us into it.
The recent Nike Pro Hijab has got people talking about how small Muslim retailers will miss out and be overlooked now; to me its most grating though that ‘hijabis’ can become a market to capture at the same time that something like the ECJ legalising the ban on headscarves in the workplace – which directly discriminates against Muslim women – can happen.
We must not equate becoming market niche with becoming free.
In 2015 H&M debuted its first advertisement with a hijabi model in it and only a month ago Debenhams became the first major department store to sell hijabs. Of course in both these cases hijab-wearing people probably shopped in those stores, probably bought ‘scarves’ they wore as hijabs without the label of ‘hijab’ and etc previously. But both these cases present to me the way even the most controversial, politicised and policed bodies can be assimilated into the need of the market to expand and to make profit.
So of course it feels nice to see a woman wearing a hijab on a mainstream billboard. It feels nice because it reflects a reality that has long gone unreflected. It feels nice because it includes me in the brackets of [normal], or sometimes [beautiful]. But I have to remember that the impetus behind that reflection is not actually for me. My liberation as a visibly Muslim woman does not reside in becoming market-niche. Becoming recognised as a consumer will not stop Islamophobia, it will not dismantle the surveillance structures set up to police Muslim people, it won’t prevent detentions and deportations, the increasing criminalisation of Muslim women’s existences and the fact we’re the central discursive symbol in the debate about culture and identities. Neoliberalism is not our liberation.