When Maryam Asadullah first posted a picture of herself in one of her many stylish outfits on Instagram a few years ago, several people she didn’t know started following her account. Unnerved by the unsolicited attention, she promptly set her account to private and moved on. But soon she realized that people wanted to follow her because she was offering something that mainstream fashion brands were not: a fusion of modesty and style that increasingly resonates with young Muslim women.
“I’ve always been a girl known to dress myself well and be a ‘stylish hijabi,’” says Asadullah, who subsequently unlocked her account and started posting pictures of herself in various ensembles that are both elegant yet modest a few times a week. (While interpretations vary, Islam dictates that both men and women dress in clothing that is not revealing or immodest.)
The 27-year-old IT project manager from Houston has always been into fashion. And the fact that she is a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, or head scarf, has never hindered her in creating chic looks that her friends want to emulate. Today, her account is one of the well-known popular sources of hijabi fashion on Instagram: She counts more than 100,000 followers from around the world, and each of her posts garners thousands of “likes,” not to mention tons of comments from Instagram users inquiring about where she got her clothes.
Asadullah is just one of many fashion-forward hijab-clad Muslim women showcasing their personal style on the popular photo-sharing social media site. Their photos feature outfits of popular-trend clothing and accessories styled in a way to look less revealing -- think skinny jeans paired with long, flowing tunics or on-trend turbans coupled with daring accessories. These Instagrammers fill a void that mainstream media has yet to cover: inspiration and advice for women who want to maintain religious standards of modesty without sacrificing personal style.
“Fashion and dressing modestly are definitely not mutually exclusive,” says Sobia Masood, a 20-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York who has her own fashion Instagram account. “Hijabis and modest fashion bloggers -- we’re literally normal girls growing up in American culture, wearing American clothes.”
And their popularity has exploded in recent years. One Instagram account that curates and re-posts hijabi style from around Instagram (fittingly called, simply, HijabFashion) has 1.3 million followers and is growing every day.
“There is something inordinately painful about being ignored by consumer culture,” says Reina Lewis, author of “Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures” and a professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion at the University of Arts London. “But the Internet allows for both commerce and commentary, and their presence on social media, which is visually led, is enormously influential.”
Big Brands Take Notice
But is the trend influential enough for major brands to start featuring hijabi models in their ads, as H&M did to much buzz several months ago? Perhaps, says Shelina Janmohamed, vice president at Ogilvy Noor, a division of Ogilvy & Mather that bills itself as the world's first specialist consultancy for building brands with Muslim consumers. Janmohamed expects more brands to start offering similar communications in the years to come. And some brands are doing it more organically on social media sites, like Keds -- which shared a post that Masood made featuring the tennis shoes with the company’s own followers.
But the women who serve as ambassadors for modest style on social media aren’t waiting around to be discovered corporate fashion brands. Many of the women who share their style on Instagram get dozens of messages from other girls and women asking for advice on everything from how to style certain clothes to dealing with societal pressures.
“I get a lot of younger girls sending me messages with questions like, does the hijab hold you back from what you want to do?” says Ruma Begum, a 26-year-old modest fashion Instagrammer from Detroit. “I respond in the most honest way possible.”
Yumna Patel, a 21-year-old senior at New York University, says modest fashion bloggers on Instagram inspire her as a young Muslim woman.
“I don’t wear a hijab, but I definitely try to dress modestly in the way they do,” says Patel, who follows dozens of accounts like Masood's and others who post modest fashion. “It’s refreshing to see these accounts get so popular -- because they represent me more so than what I see in the mainstream media. They bridge the gap between wanting to be stylish, keeping up with trends, while also adhering to your own morals and values.”
Many of the Instagrammers with large followings get asked by modest clothing brands to promote their products -- either in exchange for free clothes or for a fee. Masood says she works with various boutiques “that fit her aesthetic” and features them in her photos -- but doesn’t want to monetize her Instagram. Others do charge for the service -- because “it’s a lot of work,” explains Asadullah.
But the key, says Yasemin Kanar, a 26-year-old from Miami who has 149,000 followers on Instagram, is to “only select brands that I truly love, would totally buy for myself, and are of excellent quality.
“If the item is something I would never wear, I would not share it,” she adds.
Ultimately, Kanar says, she wants to adhere to the purpose of her account when she created it five years ago: “To inspire and help Muslim girls gain that extra bit of confidence they might have been lacking to be able to start wearing modest clothing as well as the hijab.”