Cultural Trends/Popular Culture

Muslim Model in N.Y.C. Says Gig Is Freeing

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Belonging to a breakthrough Muslim fashion agency doesn't require me to display my skin or be a certain size or shape. For many reasons--political as well as personal--that's a really good fit for me.




Underwraps model Hajer Naili
Underwraps model Hajer Naili. (Jewelry: Caribbean Lilac; Hijab and wardrobe stylist: Nailah Lymus.)

Credit: Cali York Photography and Underwraps Agency

(WOMENSENEWS)--When an independent hip-hop artist emailed me with a request recently I couldn't resist.

He wrote that he wanted to show women "just rocking out," with none of the usual hyper-sexualization of most videos. "I want to show Muslim women in a way not seen before: respectful, but having fun. Covered, but secure and relaxed enough to be themselves; strong, but still beautiful and feminine."

Music to my ears.

I know that skin-baring is somewhat in political vogue. For example, last year Egyptian blogger Aliaa Elmahdy sparked global outrage after her friend posted a picture of her naked on Twitter. The move was seen as a provocation to defy a conservative regime.

The Ukrainian protest group, Femen, is also well-known for staging topless protests around the world.

But these types of events just give women brief exposure, which tends to focus on the shocking method rather than the cause being defended. Besides, men don't need to go naked to be where they are today.

Vive la difference.

It's just not for me. I have never believed that exposing my naked body would make me feel freer. I personally don't see nudity as empowering or a way to help me affirm myself as an independent and strong woman. Deciding what I want to show--and to whom--is to me a form of self-power.

I have always wondered about the women in music videos who dance around half-naked inflating men's ego. They seem to be yielding--all too happily--to the pressure of macho societies that objectify and over-sexualize everything about womanhood. What's in it for them? I really don't get it.

A Different Video

So when someone wants to make a video that doesn't require me to bare all--or even anything--I'm in.

The artist, Ibrahim Ali, got my name through Underwraps Agency, which claims to be the world's first Muslim modeling agency. Launched in February 2012 in New York by Brooklyn-based fashion designer Nailah Lymus, it aims to promote a different image of Muslim women, often portrayed as subservient and hidden.

It does this by providing mainstream fashion exposure while allowing us to maintain--not discard--our religious beliefs.

I recently stopped wearing the headscarf. When you wear a headscarf, you become the symbol of a community, of an entire religion. All your deeds and actions are supposed to reflect the religion you follow. It is a big responsibility, one I realized I wasn't ready for at this point in my life. Though the decision to wear it and remove it was a big one.

But for over a year I wore it. And during all that time, every day was a new occasion to show that a Muslim woman can be religious, covered but still confident, secure and fashion forward. I attracted curious and prying looks and sometimes even had strangers approach me on the street to ask questions. I am very open when it comes to discussing my religion as long as individuals question and not assume.

Lymus offered me to join her agency a few months ago. I instantly accepted, not because I wanted to be a model but because of the philosophy behind this unprecedented project. In my writing work I try to show the real face of Muslim women, and describe their realities, free from assumptions and stereotypes. The agency offered another channel for doing that.

Continual Healing

Over the last few months, I have been working on photo shoots, a music video and a documentary on "hijabis," or women who are wearing the hijab. All of this has taken place in an environment where I have never had to worry about exposing my body. Although I don't wear the headscarf anymore, it is still important to me to dress in a modest fashion.

Working as a model has done something else for me. It's allowed me to more fully heal from body image issues that I developed during my years growing up in France. Paris may be the--or one of the--fashion capitals, but it's very old school about standards. Quite simply, at 5 feet 4 inches tall, I'm too short. And my body is too athletic.

While thin is still king in U.S. modeling, room is opening up here for more diversity of shapes and sizes.

In Europe, it's much more difficult if you're not very tall and skinny.

Within that culture, I suffered body complexes and eating disorders when I was between 17 and 21. I fought anorexia-bulimia in a society where the rule is to be lean.

Today, I never weigh myself and will never again do so after overcoming this devastating disease. I accept and enjoy my body with its shapes; and even more since I moved to the United States.

Here, it seems more possible to be curvy and comfortable with your body, not having your confidence and entire being caught up in conforming to a rigid standard of beauty. All that makes it feel good right now to be a Muslim woman living in the West, free to be in harmony with my religion and to celebrate my feminine identity.

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