The Surprising Lessons of the 'Muslim Hipsters' Backlash

I made a music video to share my own story as a Muslim woman in America. In doing so, I was expected to share every other Muslim woman's story, too.
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Sahar Jahani

“See you, Mama—tonight is the playoff game…” I mumbled as I hopped on my skateboard toward the soccer fields. I pinned my hijab extra tight and pulled a pair of my team’s mandatory shorts over sweat pants as I arrived—finally outside of the vantage point of those in my immediate universe.

Meanwhile, the other teenage girls uniformly hiked their shorts and their ponytails up high, two rituals that I was never able to indulge in given my Islamic dress code. The referee did her routine pre-game piercing check and ordered all of us to bare our bellies. She walked past taped piercing after piercing before she stopped in front of me. “Can she wear that on her head?” she asked my coach. My nervous coach gave the referee a look of scorn and received an equally discontented look, and the referee carried on.

I scored three goals that night, including the final point that won us the playoff. I was MVP, again. And I didn’t tell my family or friends to cheer me on, again. Because I was embarrassed about the way that I looked, again.

It’s been a long time since I was that self-conscious, young, hijabi girl on a skateboard. But recently, a video I helped make and the international reaction to it made me, briefly, feel 15 again.

My physiologically awkward years had the misfortune of coinciding with the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the wave of Islamophobia that followed. It was awkwardness to the power of two: I was gauche, thanks to Mother Nature, and hyper conscious of the implications of my identity, thanks to my hijab and Arab origins.

The years passed, and—luckily—so did my awkward phase. I graduated from skate parks to college, from hand-me-downs to carefully selected vintage items, from backpacking excursions to global UN consulting gigs. I found joy in travel, fashion, and design. I dabbled at NASA and MIT, fell in love with science as a self-proclaimed STEMinist (like a feminist, but even better). I co-founded TEDxBaghdad, and became engaged in a world of social entrepreneurship for unstable zones. I became known among friends for my stories about crossing paths with international models who would ask me to teach them to wear hijab, hip-hop stars who would compliment my style as a Muslim woman, and the dapper European First Lady intrigued by what she perceived as a paradoxical identity.

As I grew and changed, I faced one particular choice again and again: To represent my Muslim identity or to leave it for the easier world of religious anonymity? I chose to maintain my relationship with hijab.

Throughout the years, I learned that the implications of one piece of fabric could be incredible. I could be seen as violently oppressed, voicelessly submissive, pitifully lacking agency, and naïvely desexualized when not forcefully hyper-sexualized. Overall: different. Those descriptions have nothing to do with me, though. I am delusionally optimistic, painstakingly curious, confidently athletic, entertainingly awkward, imprudently adventurous, and irrationally proper when not uncomfortably loud. Overall: familiar.

I was sick of telling “my story.” Every time I did, I was contending with Islamphobes and terrorists alike, who had equally hijacked the popular narrative about Muslims. So I tried to something else: creative action.

After a year and a half of occasional, casual video shoots with director Habib Yazdi and producer Abbas Rattani, I co-produced a clip cut to Jay Z’s “Somewhere in America,” under their production company Sheikh and Bake. The two-and-a-half-minute video represented a group that we tongue-in-cheekily refer to as #mipsterz (Muslim Hipsters). The group was born on a listserv, an active forum that ranges from all things cool to intense debates about Islam, politics, and other topics of relevance (the matrimonial website Hipster Shaadi was even born there).

The video focuses on a couple dozen Muslim women in hijab showcasing their fashion sensibilities and having a good time. Whether biking, laughing, or just hanging out, the people in the video were asked to be themselves when they were not shot candidly. The subjects range from an Olympian fencer to a Harvard Dental School student to an attorney to myself. One girl founded a hijab company, Vela, and another a jewelry company, Ramoosh.

The video is a celebration of our daily lives. No burqas, bombs, or other symbols ignorantly associated with the hijab on our heads. Instead, skateboards, sunshine, and good times—realities that define us as individuals. We made the video as a self-portrait. But what it sparked was more than that.

With more than 100,000 views in two days, the clip caught the attention of the Muslim Internet and beyond. Reactions ranged from awesome to objectifying, from liberating to professionally hot, from saying we were proudly American to accusing us of stripping ourselves of authentic Eastern substance, from inclusive to fat-shaming, from shattering stereotypes to perpetuating new ones. Through articles, blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts, my face and our video plastered my social media feeds.

In putting together the video, I thought that I was aiming at the American mainstream that does not understand Islam. But the aftermath served more to unveil many of the insecurities within my own Muslim-American community, kicking off a conversation on who gets to represent Islam, why, and how.

Dr. Suad Abdul Khabeer voiced discomfort with our choice to represent hijab via “swag” rather than realities peppered in “belief and beauty, defiance and struggle, secrets and shame.” Sana Saeed at the Islamic Monthly criticized the video for lacking a message, perpetuating a heteronormative Muslim American image, objectifying its participants, and diminishing Muslim American substance: “We’re so incredibly obsessed with appearing ‘normal’ or ‘American’ or ‘Western’ by way of what we do and what we wear that we undercut the actual abnormality of our communities and push essentialist definitions of ‘normal’, ‘American’ and ‘Western.’”

Other viewers objected to the socioeconomic implications of the clip. Northwestern senior Noor Hasan asserted that “wealth and materialism is normalized in this video,” and argued that two-dozen of us girls standardized inaccessible norms for many women. “[The video] dominates the narrative on what a Muslim woman in America looks like,” which she complained is not “every Muslim girl’s narrative.”

A defense came by open letter from Rabia Chaudry, who argued that these criticisms lacked context given that this was a self-representational piece. “I’m sorry,” Chaudry wrote to us, “that in the span of a few minutes you were expected not just to express who you are, but who we all are, every single class of Muslimah, of every racial and socioeconomic background, dressed in the million ways we dress, doing the million things we do. … It’s embarrassing that you are being accused of being too American, when in fact you probably are American, and there’s nothing wrong with an American Islam.” Others celebrated how normal the video felt as a Muslim American woman, how Islam needs more Mipsterz, and offered reflective concerns and thoughts amid all of the debate.

Soon, mainstream outlets like Cosmopolitan UK, Glamour Paris, Canal France, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, NPR, The Daily Beast, The Source, and Marie Claire were covering #mipsterz as a movement of young Muslims. The general non-Muslim sentiment was and has been positive and wide. The original objective of displaying our own Muslim American narrative, far from the images of fundamentalism and terrorism presented by Islamophobes and extremists alike, was the easier goal to achieve than acceptance in my own community.

The mixed reactions within the Muslim-American community excited me because it proved the idea that Muslims are not a monolith. But the criticisms made me realize I’d been naïve to think that the video could be a personal celebration. Inevitably, people saw it as a representation of our community. Muslim Americans are in many cases wounded, marginalized, reactive, and defensive, in large part because we’re underrepresented and misrepresented in the media. The two and a half minute clip stirred up feelings born of years, if not generations, of exclusion and marginalization. And the way to counter feelings of exclusion and marginalization is to write our own narrative at a national level—a portrait that includes academics, community builders, leaders, artists, and intellectuals worth being proud of. 

Many of us feel like the little girl at the soccer field, embarrassed and self-conscious because she felt like she didn’t belong. The same little girl who was asked if her dad was a terrorist by another girl on the field. (Her mother set her straight: “No, honey—you know Dr. Shaikley, he gave you that pink cast once. You loved him!”)

“Somewhere in America” was my attempt to address that feeling as a self-portrait: the video is my story as an American Muslim. At first, the responses it invoked only discomforted me more, bringing me back to when the dozens of onlookers would gaze at me in curiosity for being different. But this time around, I was not embarrassed to invite my family and friends to join the dialogue. What I learned in all of this may help anyone who is marginalized: Tell your own story, and don’t rely on others to do it for you.

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Layla Shaikley is an alumna of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning. She is the co-founder of TEDxBaghdad.

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