Arab Women Challenging Beauty Standards with #TheHabibatiTag

Young Arab women in the US are turning to social media to challenge our definition of beauty. Being fed up with Barbie-like role models, they’re sharing selfies to show the world another kind of beauty, beyond Western standards.

#TheHabibatiTag – Arabic for “darling” – was started by Twitter user @saradmahmoud and three of her friends. As young Palestinian Americans, they refuse to accept the Western view on beauty and the biased representation of Arabs in popular media. “We only appear in the news whenever there is an act of terror and the assailant has a North African background.” Sounds familiar? It shouldn’t. According to an article in the New York Times, since the attacks of September 11, homegrown extremists have been far more deadly in the US than Jihadists, having killed almost twice as many people. But apparantly, if you have a certain background, statistics don’t matter.

For most of us, terrorism isn’t part of our life. But television and fashion are. And although standards may vary on a personal level, the fashion industry uses a very strict definition of beauty. As a model, you must have a certain size and appearance. So let’s do a little test: how many black models do you know? Naomi Campell perhaps? Correct, even she’s stopped modelling. And how many Asian models do you know? If you answered Soo Yoo Park, you are either really into fashion or you have cheated by using the internet. Anyway, the internet is certainly what you’ll need when asked for a model from the Middle-East. See the problem?

But things are changing. Gradually. Two years ago, in Milan, designer Philipp Plein casted all black models for his spring/summer collection 2014. And as demonstrated by model Winnie Harlow, even a skin condition such as vitiligo – in which parts of the skin have different colours – can be to your advantage. Remember this year’s Desigual campaign? Of course you could argue all of these are nothing more than a stunt used to generate buzz. And you’d probably be right. But this is only the beginning. And as the success of the #TheHabibatiTag has demonstrated: at least some people are no longer willing to accept a narrow-minded view on beauty.

Values or fashion?

However, there is more to this story than just accepting cultural differences. According to the Washington-based Pew Research Center, by 2050, the Muslim population worldwide will have grown to approximately 3 billion people. That’s a huge market for any kind of business. And a lot of brands and designers are already adapting. If money is not an issue, Oscar de la Renta has some nice items nowadays. And if you – like most of us – are on a budget, you can also find special collections at Uniqlo, Mango and H&M who now, in its latest catalogue, even has a model wearing a hijab.

Perhaps, who knows, some day Islam-inspired fashion will eventually become mainstream in the West. The only problem is some people say that for instance the hijab is all about attitude, all about values in life, and that it shouldn’t be reduced to a fashion item. It certainly would be if worn by a non-Muslim. So it’s tricky. Because, on the other hand, this would truly change our global ideas on beauty, which is exactly why #TheHabibatiTag was created.

Source: New York Times, Pew Forum, Sarad Mahmoud

Written by Wim Deloof

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Wim Deloof has studied audiovisual arts and continued in marketing and business administration. He's also into architecture and design.