Arab Models Are Changing Perceptions: Let Them

Last month, some of Iran’s top models were arrested for posting pictures of themselves on social media without the veil.

The arrests came under Operation Spider 2, a crackdown launched two years ago that appears to predominantly target those in the fashion industry in a bid to renew “Islamic values” and “monitor the use of social media by the Western imperialist powers to change the Iranian-Islamic life-style.”

Indeed, the Internet and social media has arguably democratized the whole world. But whereas some consider this a negative change, it’s more productive to view as potential for growth, rather than a moving away from fundamental values that are intrinsic to the core of a society.

Perceptions of the Middle East and Muslims in general have long been skewed, with Orientalism, a term coined by Edward Said in 1979 described as: “a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.”

arab model 3

These days, due to world events and negative portrayals in the media, these negative, extremist stereotypes are repeatedly reinforced. If models, whether purposefully or otherwise, are providing alternative narratives and insights, this can only be a good thing.

In recent years, there appears to be somewhat of an increase in the visibility of models from Arab descent in the international fashion scene. Most notably, perhaps, Gigi Hadid, a Palestinian, American model who has walked for the likes of Chanel, Marc Jacobs and even Victoria’s Secret. Imaan Hammam, Hind Sahli, Kenza Fourati, Hanaa Ben Abdesslem and more make up the ranks.

Shaista Gohir, a director of Muslim Women’s Network UK and campaigner for women’s rights suggests that in the West, there is a generic stereotype of Arab Muslim women, and that these models help to change that:

“It’s definitely revolutionary and a bold career choice, particularly because in that part of the world they are quite traditional,” she told BBC. “I think the stereotypes do come from the media that show Muslim women as veiled and voiceless – and you only have to look at the 100 most powerful Arab women list that comes out every year, just to see quite a different image of women from that part of the world.”

arab model 4

The fashion industry in the region has also been massively on the rise, with Muslim fashion and Muslim consumers in particular currently being catered for by fashion brands the likes of Dolce & Gabbana and Uniqlo, who recently released a range of hijabs and “modest wear” designed by British-Japanese designer Hana Tajima.

All positive, certainly; and yet by praising Muslim fashion designers and veiled models like Mariah Idrissi is to forget that that is not the only kind of Arab, Muslim women. To not take into account the vast proportion of Muslim, Arab women who are not veiled when talking about representation is, in reality, not being truly representative, either.

Yet beyond the stereotypes held by the West, much of the reason behind the lack of visibility of Arab, Muslim models is due to the cultural norms within the region, as evidenced by the recent goings on in Iran. Models are even considered, by some, as “promoters of immorality and lust and a threat to the family structure,” as well as mentally sick.

As Saudi Arabian model Wadyan Khalid told Saudi based publication Okaz: “I’ve had to deal with lots of issues because society doesn’t approve of my job. The worst thing that’s happened to me is my fiancee left me when he found what I do for a living.”

Indeed, a family’s honour is often a burden placed on the women, which raises many a question including: why is visibility a disgrace? Why do we still place this burden on women and what can we do to change this?

arab model 5

Brought into the discussion time and again is the argument of morality and modesty. Yet what do these words even mean? As Amer Al-Sabaileh, Secretary General of the Mediterranean-Gulf Forum and political analyst on Middle Eastern affairs wrote:

“Many defend their closed minds and radical attitudes under the right of being conservative. In reality… conservatism is being used as a mask to root radicalism. It is normal to be conservative, but what is not normal is when being conservative means refusing the rights of others to live according to their beliefs and wishes, preventing people from having their own lifestyle and ideology, or even trying to impose certain beliefs, convictions, lifestyles and visions on them.”

Again, it’s action and leading by example that provides alternative role models and ways of existing – both from within the region, and in viewing it from the outside.

As Moroccan model Hind Sahli told the BBC, she’s had numerous messages from young girls wanting to find out how they too could follow in her path. Something that would not and could not have happened had she not given them an alternative path to follow. Indeed, modesty is a frame of mind, not how you dress or whether or not you wear a veil. As such, importance should not be placed so wholly on the latter at the expense of progress.

arab model 6

Particularly in a time of radicalization, and of Islamophobia and fear-mongering, it is culture: films, music, fashion, that skims over the differences in skin colour, religion, sexual preference and whatever else might separate one person from another, and unites us instead by our similarities. This should be encouraged, not suppressed. It is these nuances, after all, that make us human.

By allowing people to unite over things such as shared a fashion sense and interests, we can go a long way to combatting discrimination and hatred due to fear and ignorance both from the inside and the outside.

  • Kiersten
    Posted at 20:13h, 28 June Reply

    There’s so much that made me happy about this. I’m Arab American (Lebanese. Family is historically Christian.) and I always get a lot of surprised reactions when people learn about my ethnic background because the West has an assumption of what the “Arab face” looks, dresses, and acts like – regardless of their religion. I love the names of beautiful and strong women that you mentioned because a lot of them are sacrificing so much (Wadyan Khalid lost the love of her life, like you said!) just so they be proud of their FASHION.

    Love not hate! Fashion not discrimination! I love it. Thanks!


    • Alya
      Posted at 19:10h, 01 July Reply

      Thanks for reading Kiersten! It’s all about challenging stereotypes! I actually have a good friend who is a Lebanese Chalhoub – who knows, a distance relative to yours perhaps ha! x

  • Dakota D.
    Posted at 07:44h, 29 June Reply

    This is such a fascinating blog post! It is so important to be able to express yourself through fashion wherever you are. I feel like some people forget that not all countries allow women to show their faces but I am so glad to hear that there are women in those places trying to change that.

    Dakota D.
    Instagram: @Missdsquared413
    Dakota D. recently posted…What I learned from….My Profile

    • Alya
      Posted at 19:08h, 01 July Reply

      Thanks for reading Dakota 🙂 x

  • Mia
    Posted at 12:55h, 01 July Reply

    No doubts “It’s revolutionary and a bold career choice, particularly because in that part of the world they are quite traditional. But now world is changing so this part of the world have to respect the changes. We know changes are not easily expected in some part of the world but this time for a revolutionary change.

  • Becky
    Posted at 12:28h, 09 July Reply

    Fashion in middle eastern countries, for me is not easy to imagine, due to strict rules for women and lack of freedom. After reading this article I am fascinating and love to visit and want to see real life experience. Thanks for sharing this amazing blog post

Post A Comment

CommentLuv badge

stay connected

Publications I’ve Written For