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.
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.

Presented by

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

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