H&M’s latest look: Hijab-wearing Muslim model stirs debate

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This the first time H&M, the world’s second largest retailer, has featured a Muslim model wearing a hijab in a video designed to encourage consumers to recycle their clothes. And, it’s opened up the debate on Muslims in fashion.

As expected, the video, released earlier this month and entitled “Close the Loop,” is a slick production by the Swedish brand – urban scenes, stylish attire and models of various nationalities, genders and sizes.

In fact, it was the Muslim woman’s debut modeling performance, too.

Born and raised in London to a Pakistani mother and Moroccan father, 23-year-old Mariah Idrissi got her photo submitted to H&M by her casting director friend.

“It was just a one-off. I didn’t plan on it getting this big,” Idrissi said, laughing.

And, it seems the giant fashion house had done their research, too.

“I was surprised. They actually really knew exactly how I should be dressed,” Idrissi said. “They understood it had to be very loose fitting, not figure hugging, not anything revealing. They gave a range of different outfits. I kind of hinted what I liked, and all of them were respectable.”

Some people say modeling conflicts with traditional Islamic beliefs, but Idrissi disagrees.

“I’ve seen a few comments where (people are) against it, but there’s nothing that says there is anything against it. In our religion, anything that’s not stated as forbidden is permissible,” she said. “As long as I’m dressed correctly, according to Islam, then there’s no problem. It’s just promoting the hijab, in a way. If anything, it’s good.”

Mariam Veiszadeh, a female Muslim lawyer, writer and advocate for Muslims based in Australia, said more work still needs to be done.

“Muslim women still continue to face additional barriers in many industries. Women may face a glass ceiling when it comes to the workforce, but women of color have to contend with a concrete ceiling,” Veiszadeh said. “I look forward to the day when a hijab-clad model no longer makes headlines.”

The advert may be making headlines, but it also makes business sense.

Muslims spent $266 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013, according to Thomson Reuters.

“I think it’s a fantastic development in H&M’s brand positioning,” said Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Ogilvy Noor, a specialist consultancy for building brands with Muslim consumers. “We know that, in many countries where they (H&M) have a presence and as a global brand, the young female Muslim consumer is a growing demographic and, when we’ve spoken to young Muslim women, they feel that they are not represented in today’s global fashion identity.”

Janmohamed said her research shows that advertising doesn’t need to be explicit in their targeting of Muslim women.

“They don’t need something that says, ‘Muslim woman: This is for you,'” she said. “What they want to see is that they’re treated as any other consumer.”

The next step would be for other major retailers to follow in H&M’s footsteps, Janmohamed said.

“There is so much in the news and political discussions about Muslims that brands understandably feel a bit nervous about reaching out to Muslim audiences,” she said. “I would encourage them to be brave and be bold, and they’ll see that Muslim audiences are extremely responsive and very loyal.”

However, there are still conflicting views being circulated about the advert’s message. Although, others welcome the change.

So, what is Idrissi’s advice to other aspiring Muslim models?

“Make sure your intentions are correct in terms of why you’re doing it. Hijab isn’t a fashion. We can adjust it to fashion, but we have to remember that the sole purpose of the hijab is to be modest,” she said. “If you know you haven’t corrected your inside first, there’s no point in putting a hijab on for the fashion side of it. Because, then, you’re defeating the object.”

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