H&M’s latest look: Hijab-wearing Muslim model stirs debate (CNN)

H&M model, Mariah Idrissi

H&M model, Mariah Idrissi

By Monica Sarkar, for CNN

[This article is published by CNN here]

This is the first time H&M, the world’s second largest retailer, has featured a Muslim model wearing a hijab in a video designed to encourage consumers to recycle their clothes. And it’s opened up the debate on Muslims in fashion.

As expected, the video, released earlier this month and entitled “Close the Loop”, is a slick production by the Swedish brand. Urban scenes, stylish attire and models of various nationalities, genders and sizes.

In fact, it was the Muslim woman’s debut modeling performance too.

Born and raised in London to a Pakistani mother and Moroccan father, Mariah Idrissi, 23, got her photo submitted to H&M by her casting director friend.

“It was just a one-off, I didn’t plan on it getting this big,” she tells CNN, laughing. And it seems the giant fashion house had done their research too.

“I was surprised, they actually really knew exactly how I should be dressed. They understood it had to be very loose fitting, not figure hugging, not anything revealing. They gave a range of different outfits. I kind of hinted what I liked and all of them were respectable,” she says.

Some people say modeling conflicts with traditional Islamic beliefs. Idrissi disagrees.

“I’ve seen a few comments where (people are) against it, but there’s nothing that says there is anything against it. In our religion, anything that’s not stated as forbidden is permissible,” she says.

“As long as I’m dressed correctly, according to Islam, then there’s no problem,” she adds. “It’s just promoting the hijab, in a way. If anything, it’s good.”

Mariah Idrissi in a scene from the video.

H&M declined to comment, but said in a statement to CNN: “We don’t convey any specific ideal or encourage a choice of lifestyle which is what the “Close the Loop” film shows; there are no rules in fashion but one.”

Mariam Veiszadeh, a female Muslim lawyer, writer and advocate for Muslims based in Australia, tells CNN that more work still needs to be done: “Muslim women still continue to face additional barriers in many industries. Women may face a glass ceiling when it comes to the workforce but women of colour have to contend with a concrete ceiling.

“I look forward to the day when a hijab-clad model no longer makes headlines.”

The advert may be making headlines, but it also makes business sense. Muslims spent $266 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013, according to Thomson Reuters. “I think it’s a fantastic development in H&M’s brand positioning,” says Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Ogilvy Noor, a specialist consultancy for building brands with Muslim consumers.

“We know that in many countries where they (H&M) have a presence and as a global brand the young, female Muslim consumer is a growing demographic and when we’ve spoken to young Muslim women they feel that they are not represented in today’s global fashion identity.”

Janmohamed says her research shows that advertising doesn’t need to be explicit in their targeting of Muslim women. “They don’t need something that says, ‘Muslim woman: this is for you.’ What they want to see is that they’re treated as any other consumer.”

The next step would be for other major retailers to follow in H&M’s footsteps, she argues. “There is so much in the news and political discussions about Muslims that brands understandably feel a bit nervous about reaching out to Muslim audiences.”

“I would encourage them to be brave and be bold and they’ll see that Muslim audiences are extremely responsive and very loyal.”

However, there are still conflicting views being circulated about the advert’s message.

Although others welcome the change.

So what is Idrissi’s advice to other aspiring Muslim models?

“I would say, make sure your intentions are correct in terms of why you’re doing it. Hijab isn’t a fashion,” she says. “We can adjust it to fashion but we have to remember that the sole purpose of the hijab is to be modest.

“If you know you haven’t corrected your inside first, there’s no point in putting a hijab on for the fashion side of it. Because then you’re defeating the object.”

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