Finding power in veiled promises

A Russian Muslim woman ties an Islamic head scarf onto the head of a mannequin during a celebration of the World Hijab Day in a store in Moscow (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A Russian Muslim woman ties an Islamic head scarf onto the head of a mannequin during a celebration of the World Hijab Day in a store in Moscow (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The picture of a smiling hijab-wearing woman in a Canadian medical recruitment advertisement put it plainly: “We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it.”

In today’s fraught political climate, openly reaching out to Muslims can be commercially dangerous. Just ask the halal brands around the world being targeted by “Boycott Halal” campaigns.

Yet the advertisement for doctors by Lakeridge Health in Ontario is part of a story that is making consumerism an unlikely force for equality and positivity for Muslim women. Despite the hostility Muslim women face in Muslim-minority countries, their increasingly common depiction in mainstream advertising is a surprisingly positive one.

Our age is consumerist and visual, forstering excessive consumption and idealised beauty norms. So it is ironic that it also has some of the most positive and upbeat depictions of Muslim women. Advertising appears to be the great equaliser.

Jeep’s Superbowl advert this year was set to the song This land is my land and featured a Muslim woman in black scarf, black abaya and a smile. Her presence caused a storm of protest. Last year’s Coca-Cola advert featured America is beautiful sung in several different languages, including Arabic, and had hijab-clad Muslim women.

The patriotic song choices, hymn-like singing and lofty visuals positioned both these adverts as proud commentaries on America’s diversity. But they also offer a glimpse of hopeful- ness that is rarely reflected in our shared public imagery: that Muslim women are an integral and positive social force.

The spending power of Muslim women is being reflected in how they are depicted: part of society, dressed as per their own choices, a reflection of the modern world.

Advertising is about creating a polished sparkling upbeat version of the lives to which we aspire. There are plenty of criticisms about the unrealistic perfection that adverts instil into our minds but when most imagery of Muslim women is hostile, the consumer space is one where positive engagement and normality of Muslim women is finally breaking through.

Of course, advertising is also no stranger to using Muslim women to stir up controversy. An American billboard advert for a snoring remedy featured an American soldier with his arm round his niqab-clad wife. The strapline was “Keeping you together”.

Commercial organisations are realising that their growing audience of Muslim women needs targeted products as well as imagery. One example is a surge in the availability of hair care products for women who cover their hair. Companies ranging from multinational corporations to small businesses are creating products for this sector. The result is that Muslim women are treated with the same respect as any other consumer group.

This is something that Muslim women should take advantage of and ensure their voices as consumers are heard. If along the way this upsets Islamophobes like American blogger Debbie Schlussel, who wrote that this new product line was “selling subjugation through shampoo”, then that’s even better. We’ll be improving sales, and making the world a more positive, diverse place that reflects real women.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk

Published: March 13, 2015 04:00 AM

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