Vogue Arabia and racism in the Muslim world
The magnificent April issue of the magazine Vogue Arabia has three beautiful black models, Halima Aden, Ikram Abdi Omar and Amina Adan, on its cover. The stunning photograph of the women, two of whom had never been on a Vogue cover before, was taken by photographer Txema Yeste. The issue made waves among fashion aficionados in the Middle East and elsewhere as soon as it was released. This was the first time three black women wearing hijabs had been featured on the cover of an elite fashion magazine. Here was beauty made inclusive and Vogue Arabia had done it.
Fashion is traditionally not considered the venue for societal change. If anything, it has been a gendered realm ruled by women who do not want to challenge but simply to beautify. But there is another way to look at this. Fashion, at its best, synthesizes the past and the future, defines the new normal before it is normal, the beautiful before it is universally acknowledged as gorgeous. In this sense, fashion pushes the boundaries of beauty and acceptability, forces people to consider what they like now and what they will like in the future.
Vogue Arabia’s cover is provocative in some ways because in featuring three black Muslim women on the cover, it reminded viewers that black is beautiful. This would seem like a simple thing; in theory, Islam prohibits racial prejudice and requires that all are treated equally and all are considered beautiful. The reality in many parts of the Muslim world is sadly quite different. In countries like Pakistan, for instance, dark skin is considered a liability, reducing a girl’s chances in marriage. On the other hand, white skin is offered up as the epitome of beauty.
The vision of beauty that is offered up to women and girls growing up in the region often points to blonde hair and blue eyes as something to vie for. This standard of beauty alienates most of the women who are subjected to it, who happen to be black or brown and are therefore confronted by an inability to be white and hence beautiful.
Vogue Arabia sets a new trend in that the models are presented as fashion icons and Muslims, making a photographic argument that it is indeed possible to be both.
Then there is the issue of hijab. This is not the first time that Vogue Arabia has featured a woman wearing a hijab on the cover, but it is the first time it has featured multiple black women wearing it. In doing so, it has pointed out another hypocrisy that proliferates in the Muslim world, that only light-skinned women wearing a hijab can be fashion icons. Vogue Arabia sets a new trend in that the models are presented as fashion icons and Muslims, making a photographic argument that it is indeed possible to be both.
The issue of race, particularly prejudice towards black Muslims, is a difficult and problematic one. In many Muslim countries, brothers and sisters from African countries are treated as second-class citizens, kept from good jobs and housing and subjected to other forms of exclusion — even though Islam teaches Muslims to completely disregard race as any sort of consideration. Often Muslim pilgrims from places like Pakistan and India discriminate against other pilgrims who are from African countries. In one of the worst illustrations of this reality, a television exposé recently revealed markets in Libya where refugees from African countries were being auctioned off as slaves.
A cover of Vogue Arabia cannot change all of these endemic and long-standing problems. It cannot silence racists who make fun of dark skin, of Africans, of anyone darker than them, as somehow lesser, lacking in dignity and worth. But a magazine cover like Vogue Arabia’s April issue can, in a roundabout way, raise these questions. Black Muslim women are beautiful, the envy and admiration of all who look at them. The Muslim world is not simply South Asia and the Middle East but also Africa.
It is time that the Muslim world confronted its own racism. Doing so will require a multi-faceted approach. Debate and discussion on the outlets that reach Muslims are important; so, too, are efforts in the artistic and fashion realms. Often these secondary means of self-expression, fashion and art and literature, can point to issues with great subtlety and show people a just and egalitarian perspective rather than a prejudiced and racist one. Vogue Arabia’s April issue has demonstrated how this can be done, the incredible beauty of the stunning models thus illustrating a broad and inclusive vision of female beauty.