At this time, I said to myself ‘this is probably not a race issue,’ there must be a reason for their absence and there is no need to make a mountain out of a molehill. Forgive my silliness but I genuinely went through quite a few reasons in my head to justify the absence of dark-skinned Muslim women. The reasons included the following: “Maybe there weren’t a lot of Black Muslim women that wanted to model? or the companies didn’t know about them?”
Fast forward and several months later, while having a conversation with a friend, she said to me, ‘Mahmoudat have you noticed that so and so shops only use light-skinned models on their pages?’ and the first thing I said when she asked that question was “Thank you, Lord! My observations have been vindicated! I am not the only one who has noticed.” By this point, I was following a wide variety of Hijabi Bloggers, models and You-tubers to know that the absence of the dark-skinned ones wasn’t necessarily by choice.
Colourism and anti-blackness in the Muslim community
We have to recognise that bloggers who are fair or light in complexion are afforded privileges that their dark-skinned counterparts simply do not have. And I could say the same for the broader You-tube World or the normal Fashion industry, because Muslim women tend to be at the bottom of that hierarchy. But the issue of colourism and anti-blackness is frustrating for me, because I think we have a great opportunity with the Muslim Fashion Industry and Blogging world to do better and to be representative in line with the teachings of our religion. Here is our opportunity to do it how it should be done, but instead we are falling into the same perpetuation of colourism.
There are two distinct issues here. As a community and as an Ummah, we are still dealing with deeply entrenched issues of colourism and anti-blackness. A lot of mindsets are still stuck on the notion that fair skin or light skin equates to beauty and we largely celebrate Eurocentric ideals of beauty. The second issue is that a lot of Muslim brands, whether consciously or unconsciously, are perpetuating colourism, by not affording dark-skinned models or bloggers the same opportunities.
Take a moment to think about your Instagram feed and the diversity of the models/ bloggers that the Muslim companies use. Off the top of my head, the only brands that I know that consistently use dark-skinned models are Inayah and Mode.ste. Two companies out of how many? That is an absurd ratio. From a financial point of view as well, it makes no sense to me not to have accurate representation considering the products – whether they are hijabs, abayas or whatever else – are supposed to appeal to a wide consumer base of Muslim women.
Aside from noticing the erasure of dark-skinned models (black and Asian) from Instagram pages and websites in general, my first sickening exposure to colourism within the industry was while I was watching Dina Torkia’s BBC Three Documentary, “Muslim Beauty Pageant and Me,”. The documentary was based on Dina’s journey as a contestant on the International Muslim pageant – World Muslimah, a two-week boot camp for contestants to prove their credentials as good Muslim role models. Imagine my shock as I witnessed one of the organizers give the African/ dark-skinned contestants lightening creams! I had to rewind and pause the scene just to let the irony of the moment sink in as well as the glaring hypocrisy that the contestants were being judged on ‘Islamic Values.’ Dina thankfully called it out but lo and behold that would not be the last of my experiences with the issue of colourism and anti-blackness in the modest fashion industry/ blogging sphere.
A Superiority Complex
Around a year ago, YouTuber and Blogger, Habiba Da Silva, posted a picture of herself at a wedding on her Instagram page which turned out to be a revelation because of the comments and the controversy that ensued afterwards. Examples of some of the insidious comments include: “Why are you so dark? you look ugly”, “Dark is not nice,” “Dark does not suit you” and “Here, you look like a ni**er.”
Are you in shock right now? Because I couldn’t close my mouth as I read some of the comments, but the joke is on me for thinking it was impossible for Muslims to write such despicable comments! Habiba made a video to address the issue, and rightly so, but I kid you not, some people still had the audacity to express racist views in the comments section. Either completely missing the point of the video, or just choosing to ignore it. So far I haven’t mentioned a specific community within the ummah, because I genuinely think the issue of colourism, while more prevalent in some cultures and communities, spans across Muslim communities worldwide. But in this instance, it has to be mentioned, particularly, because a lot of the comments above were from Arab Brothers and sisters.
In addition, I need people to miss me with the ‘we’re not racist because we love Bilal’ argument, because true colours were on display in this instance. God forbid your favourite blogger has a tan. All hell breaks loose! I want to be balanced in my discussion so I am making it clear that most people denounced the racists’ comments under the picture, but the level of anti-blackness was significant enough for me to feel that this was an issue.
To some extent, the issue of colourism or anti-blackness within the modest fashion industry/ blogging sphere is illustrative of the general erasure of black Muslims from Islamic narratives. Hashtags such as #BombBlackHijabis, #BlackinMSA, #BeingBlackandMuslim and #BlackOutEid would not be needed if this wasn’t happening.
In conclusion, I mentioned earlier that I was glad I waited to write the article and this is due to the recent International Modest Fashion Festival in Toronto which was proof of how it can and should be done. It is just one festival and of course, it doesn’t cover all the issues that I’ve discussed above. But the representation that I saw with fashion designers, the stalls and models on the runway was a rarity and it gives me hope for the future. If you haven’t seen the pictures do check it out on Instagram. I have zero tolerance for racist and anti-black comments but going forward, I will no longer excuse the laziness and actions of prominent Islamic brands in their lack of diversity and I encourage everyone else to do likewise. It is imperative that we generate awareness about the experiences and erasure of our Black and dark-skinned Muslim sisters in the modest fashion industry and blogging sphere.
In the words of Maya Angelou and using Oprah Winfrey’s voice: “When you know better, you do better.”