You may remember seeing a video released last December by a group of Muslim women titled “Somewhere in America”. The two-and-a-half-minute clip (set to Jay-Z’s song of the same title) follows the hijab-wearing friends as they skateboard, eat ice cream, take selfies and try-on fake mustaches. The point, as explained by the producers, was to introduce the world to a modern generation of twenty-something Muslim women, those who argue that they are just as hip, fashionable, socially-conscious and educated as non-Muslims their age. Pairing head scarves with skinny jeans and ironic tees, they sought to use the video as a platform for banishing some of the negative connotations commonly associated with hijabs and the people who wear them. These “mipsterz” (a.k.a. Muslim hipsters), as they call themselves, were recently interviewed by The Daily Beast to discuss the now-viral video, as well as the wide-reaching debate inspired in its wake.
“Too often, Hijabi women are placed in categories of expectation,” said Yasmin Chebbi, one of the girls in the video, during the interview. “The stereotypes of being meek, submissive, backward, and bland have been projected onto me far too many times. Growing up wearing the hijab and living in America, I never felt I belonged to a particular group. I felt that to others, being devoted to my faith and adopting interests such as music, art, and fashion were in conflict” (The Daily Beast, 1/15/14).
Mipsterz have found a way to live in harmony with their familial and personal interests, and want people to know that adhering to their religious practices doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to live sheltered lives. Indeed, it can allow ample time for the cultural and frivolous pursuits that many non-Muslims wouldn’t usually associate with Muslim women. Interests like art, music, sports, and fashion.
Take California fashion designer Nancy Hoque, for example. Nancy, a Muslim herself, caters to the growing market of mipsterz who are looking to find a way to express themselves while staying true to their religious beliefs. Her motto is “Scarves are a tool of empowerment.” According to women like Yasmin and Nancy, the hijab is just another piece of clothing, like a jacket or coat, and the wearing of it doesn’t diminish or stamp out a personality any more than wearing outer garments can.
The video has garnered mixed reviews from Internet commenters– some applauding it as a discussion-starter on the topic of acceptance, others claiming that the choice of music and general style of the clip distracted from the message. Last month, the senior online editor for Islamic Monthly, wrote: “Aesthetically, it’s really hip, smooth, fierce and, for all intents and purposes, cool. But that’s about it” (Islamic Monthly, 12/2/13).
But, if the video ignites a discussion for the good of humanity, can we really haggle over something as benign as the choice of background music?
Overall, the consensus seems to be that, though it could have been done in a more sober, on-point way, it’s the thought that counts.
From my perspective as a non-Muslim woman, I suspect that the stereotype of Muslims being anything other than oppressed is one that will take a while for some of the more westernized countries to warm up to. This will be especially true for the United States, where people are willing to go to the grave/pay hefty lawyer’s fees/march in the streets to defend their freedom of expression, and do so regularly. It is distinctly “American” to fight any perceived threat to our personal freedom, which is why it might be confusing for some that Muslims willingly follow a religion with a dress code. However, the fact that this video has ignited such a thoughtful debate demonstrates the compassion and validity for this movement, and I’m hoping that continued discourse on this topic can put us all in the right mindset.
By Sabrina Willard