Recently, the CEO of SHUKR had a chat with a French magazine about the criticism and scrutiny that Muslim women and Islamic fashion have been subjected to by some of the world's top politicians and fashion designers. Here's what he had to say:
Are you surprised that western labels, from high scale Dolce & Gabbana to mass market H&M, are beginning to pay attention to Islamic fashion through dedicated lines (Ramadan collections…)?
Not at all. The surprise is rather that they have taken so long to catch on. It’s been obvious to Islamic fashion industry players and observers that this is a massive market and it’s just the natural laws of an open, free market system that when there is demand exceeding supply and some profit to be made new competition will enter the fray.
This development has been criticized in France by our secretary on women rights, Laurence Rossignol or Pierre Bergé, business and life partner of late designer Yves Saint Laurent. Both share the view that Islamic fashion is oppressive for women as it forces them to cover their body fully. Do you understand their reaction?
Yes, of course. I am a convert to Islam, grew up in Europe and studied European philosophy and intellectual history. Also, like many Muslims, I am a keen and concerned observer of social and cultural changes. So I am aware that the dominant understanding of freedom in contemporary societies is a freedom from restrictions: freedom from government interference, freedom from religious doctrines, freedom from old-fashioned moral values about sexuality, freedom from male power structures etc. A woman covering up her body completely is seen as the complete opposite of what a free woman would normally do. And, also, I am aware that the French government and society, because of its historical struggle against an oppressive Catholic church and subsequent model of secularism (laïcité), places a strong emphasis on integration into a society that is very suspicious of religious practice and symbols. So women wearing clothing which obviously has a religious intention behind it is looked at with concern. Finally, at a deeper level, Western countries have long since abandoned their religious heritage and embraced a materialistic world-view which has little room for God, considering this development the natural evolution and pinnacle of human achievement. Individuals and societies that are still God-centred are considered backwards and in need of enlightenment.
Or do you think that they defend an outdated view of feminism where women had to show more and more of their body to feel liberated? Or are plainly Islamophobic?
It’s one perspective of feminism and definitely not the only one. Certainly the view of the Muslim women I know is that they feel liberated by dressing modestly, because it enables them to participate in the public sphere based upon their intellect and talents rather than on the basis of their physical appearance. In fact, Muslim women often look with sympathy at women who feel that they have to display their body in order to feel free and liberated. They see that as a form of enslavement to the desires of men rather than the real needs of women. Most men take pleasure in seeing the beauty of women and in living a promiscuous lifestyle. This pleasure is taken away when women are modestly covered. I don’t, therefore, see the logic in calling this a male-imposed system of dress that is opposed to feminism. Rather, Muslims see this a divinely-inspired system to moderate relationships between men and women for the benefit of the whole society, so that romantic relationships are confined to marriages and healthy, balanced family-based societies are formed. Visitors to Muslim countries are often impressed at how society is still family-oriented and the people are generally extremely friendly, generous and full of inward peace.
I don’t know if the views of Laurence Rossignol and Pierre Bergé are plainly Islamophobic, but they do clearly smack of narrow-minded paternalism and cultural imperialism. There’s more than just one way to live life and other societies around the world may have different religious, social and cultural values which we can perhaps learn from rather than denounce. In Islam, we are taught to appreciate the wonderful variety of God’s creation and to seek wisdom from others, and that’s why you will find a tremendous amount of cultural difference across the Muslim world.
It’s an obvious contradiction that Laurence Rossignol and Pierre Bergéare advocating freedom for Muslim women and decrying any participation in their “enslavement” whilst simultaneously taking away a basic freedom to choose what they want to wear. And it is ironic given that one of them is a minister for women’s rights and the other a fashion mogul who has been trying to dictate what women wear for decades.
One cannot bring the argument here that Muslim women are “forced” to wear such clothing, whether physically or through social pressures. The vast, vast majority of Muslim women freely choose to dress modestly out of sincere religious conviction. It’s only because many Europeans have lost touch with their religious heritage and traditional morality and embraced a secular, materialistic monoculture that they cannot understand this, because religious values are now so foreign to them. In fact, if we are talking about social pressures, the reverse argument can be made: that under the influence of incessant media images and advertising of thin, sexually attractive women who only represent a fraction of the population,many women in contemporary societies are under a tremendous amount of social pressure to conform to these popular images of beauty, and they often have deep feelings of insecurity and a lack of inner peace.
When you were launching your brand in the early 2000 you said that you were not selling clothes through sex. Do you believe that western brands are essentially sex driven?
Of course we can’t completely generalize, but I think it’s undeniable that sexuality is the main marketing tool of most contemporary brands. One only has to look at the catalogues, websites and adverts of most companies to see numerous pictures of beautiful female and male models, often in very alluring or provocative poses. Such marketing is so widespread because it obviously works. Humans are naturally attracted to beauty and have strong passions which typically outweigh other faculties if given free reign. Ironically, even many Islamic fashion brands are falling prey to the same techniques, albeit in more muted forms. For Islamic clothing brands there is therefore a tension between commerce and religion, between exploiting human nature for marketing purposes versus making sure religious values about modesty are adhered to.
How can Islamic fashion versus classical hijab and niqab help eradicate the image of the oppressed Muslim woman?
I’m not sure if it can have much more than a superficial impact. Of course, it can be said that when people see Muslim women dressing in brighter, contemporary fashionable clothing rather than covered all in black in the burka or niqab, that it will help them understand that Muslim women have choices like everyone else, can freely participate in society, and that religion isn’t there to stifle them. However, the problem with this perspective is that it is taking the values of the contemporary monoculture to be the only correct standards and holding everyone to account according to them. Are women only free when they appear in public in fashionable clothing? Why is participation in the public sphere given so much importance, more than the private spheres of family and communities? Why is someone judged by the materialistic criteria of one’s clothing? The strongest, most content and impressive women I have met are the traditional women of the Arab world who have a degree of happiness that many women in Europe cannot imagine. I think the best way to eradicate the image of the oppressed Muslim woman is to meet real Muslim women and spend some time with them, rather than rely upon contemporary media misrepresentation.
In secular societies such as ours in Europe, dress code is a powerful social factor. Don’t you think that instead of creating acceptance/integration, Islamic fashion triggers rejection?
As we all know, there are different interpretations of secularism. The French concept of laïcité leads to an officially-enshrined hostility to public expressions of faith and the French Republic has this ideal of universalism, of the oneness and sameness of all its citizens, which Muslims seem to go against. However, countries like the UK, America and Canada have a greater emphasis on multi-culturalism and an acceptance of the different religious and cultural traditions of its citizens, even if expressed in public. Personally, I find a world in which everyone has to look and act the same a very boring, restrictive and closed-minded one.
Should western brands stick to their looks and leave it to “born in the faith” labels such as yours, Shukr, to address the Muslim audience because you know better the Shariah-compliance rules?
No. It’s great that there is cross-cultural communication. The world needs more of it, especially in today’s times. And Western brands can employ the service of Muslim advisors and designers to help out in the area of Shariah-compliance rules, just like mainstream banks have a Shariah-advisory board for their Islamic finance departments.
Do you think that Islamic fashion has its space in the world fashion scene?
Definitely, because beauty is not limited to just one type of cultural expression. In addition, it is not just Muslims that dress modestly. There are many religious Christians, Jews and even people of no faith that dress modestly for a variety of reasons, and so why not give voice to all these people?
Do you think that the desire – post Sept 11 - of young Muslims in western countries to dress in line with the Shariah code is deep rooted or an infatuation that will pass?
Many young Muslims – before 9/11 and after 9/11 – decided to explore the religious faith that they had inherited from their parents. What they found was a God-centred, rational religion that appealed to their souls at a time when mainstream society had turned away from religion and could only offer them materialistic riches which didn’t satisfy the soul’s yearning for the Divine. Adopting the hijab and modest clothing was an expression of this faith and commitment to the Divine. In this sense, it is deep rooted and not just a passing phase. However, on the other hand, the pressures to conform to the contemporary monoculture in Western countries are very strong, and in fact what one often sees now is that people are leaving the Shariah commitments to the hijab and modest clothing. I should mention that the word “Shariah” often has negative connotations in today’s times, but when it comes to clothing the prescriptions are very basic and there is a lot of room for personal choices and creativity. In fact, the modern Islamic fashion movement has largely been initiated by creative young Muslim women expressing their identities as people of religious faith who feel comfortable living as citizens in Western countries.
Does Shariah-based fashion allow to think out of the box? How do you draw the lines between halal and haram when it comes to designing clothes (spiritual guide, basic rules …)
Shariah-based fashion actually forces one to think out of the box in one sense, because one has to be extra creative given the guidelines on modesty. On the other hand, it is even easier to be creative because one has so much fabric to work with.
I think, however, that we need to take a balanced view of fashion. For Muslims, we are encouraged to look presentable and well-dressed because of a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad (may God’s blessing and peace be upon him) that “God is beautiful and He loves beauty.” However, in Islam we are encouraged to take a moderate approach towards worldly matters, and fashion is no exception. Worrying about what exactly is the latest fashion, or becoming obsessed with one’s self-appearance, or wasting money on expensive designer goods are all matters that are discouraged. For a Muslim, true contentment and happiness in this world comes about through cultivating a direct, strong relationship with God and following His wise injunctions about how to live the good life. Life has a spiritual purpose and not just a material purpose. If we bear this purpose in mind, then we use clothing and fashion to meet our spiritual goals, rather than experiencing them as merely materialistic matters to please our senses and egos.
Where is Shukr now and heading in terms of development?
Launched in the year 2001, SHUKR was the first Islamic clothing company to design and produce an innovative range of men’s and women’s clothing that combined Shariah principles for dressing with contemporary fashion. Today, 15 years later, we focus our efforts on reaching a global community of customers via our websites, and sell to well over 50 different countries. We also have numerous franchises and wholesalers across the world, in North America, European countries, the Middle East, the Far East and Africa. We run our own physical retail stores in Jordan. However, our main focus in terms of development is on-line, because it is the easiest way to reach the broadest range of customers, and the e-commerce is developing rapidly across the Muslim world. We will shortly be launching new websites and improved logistical operations in order to meet worldwide demand.
However, the biggest suppliers of Islamic clothing by far are multi-brand retailers that supply the products of hundreds of different brands, like Modanisa in Turkey or Hijup in Indonesia. At this stage in the development of the Islamic fashion industry this multi-brand retail model is better.
In order to become a global Islamic clothing brand, besides the Internet, do you need to have a store in London, Dubai or Istanbul?
Yes, in all of these places and more. A true global Islamic clothing brand will have stores in almost every city where Muslims are a significant percentage of the population, whether in Muslim countries or non-Muslim countries. SHUKR does aspire to be the first global Islamic clothing brand, but we will have to see what God wills for us.