Hijab and the Role of Influencers

 Social Media’s Influence on Practicing Faith

By Sundus Abrar

Jan/Feb 2024
Tahirah Folk

“Shame on you.” 

“She was my inspiration.”

“Tears started falling and I really loved you.” 

These are some of the emotionally charged comments that remain on an Instagram post of a Muslim influencer when she decided to stop wearing the hijab. Despite her very public presence on Instagram, she has opted to not clarify her reasons for doing so. Subsequent requests from Islamic Horizons for an interview were not answered. A’s identity is not the central concern in this discussion, but the turbulent reaction to her personal decision needs to be explored to understand how the actions of public individuals impact the broader Muslim community. 

Interviews referenced here were conducted prior to the ongoing and devastating siege in Palestine which has resulted in a rise in Islamophobic rhetoric and hate crimes affecting “visible” Muslims in North America. As the mainstream media continues to peddle a familiar bias narrative, many are beginning to question its validity. Social media, despite the persistent attempts of censorship on it, serves as a key access point to portraying the realities of oppressed populations. 

Muslims have consistently been vilified in mainstream media. This has far-reaching and tragic outcomes when Muslims are targeted in acts of hate and harassment. Presenting as visibly Muslim, an experience shared by women who wear the hijab, can be difficult in such unbalanced settings. Social media offers relative safe spaces for these women to connect and build resilience to overcome the challenges they encounter in their immediate environments. 

Leaving the Hijab

Before she stopped wearing hijab, A used her presence online to share different hijab styles and modest dressing. She also offered services as a hijab stylist which led to the launch of her hijab line. In a 2014 interview, published on a Muslim blog, she shared insight about when she started wearing hijab at age 11. “I wore it by choice because I had the right influence around me.” This positive influence was what many of A’s followers were seeking to aid them in their own hijab journeys. 

Like A, several other influencers have recently stopped wearing hijab. Two other women also marketed hijabs and modest fashion lines. They were vocal in their choice to wear hijab when they were maintaining this choice but did not discuss their reasons for why they stopped. Their dismissiveness only led to more questioning and frustration from their followers. 

People feel betrayed and disappointed when the unspoken expectations they have of influencers and public figures they admire are not met. These feelings are not unwarranted. A deeply resonating message, or niche, on social media, evokes an emotional response in followers which results in increased content engagement. This is the very currency for prominence and success on social media. An emotionally invested following online can often nly be sustained through an influencer’s consistency in messaging.

Do Influencers then have any responsibility to maintain this trust and be consistent in their personal choice to wear hijab? 

Dr. Tamara Gray

Scholarly Advice

Dr. Tamara Gray, acclaimed religious scholar and founder of Rabata, a Minnesota-based nonprofit Islamic organization for women, is thoughtful and thorough in addressing this concern. 

With a considerable following on social media herself, she recognizes the challenges that come with heightened prominence for influencers.  “The early companions didn’t want to be leaders because they knew this was hard, and I am going to have to put even more of my nafs aside,” said Gray. “Being in the limelight is really hard because now you have to make decisions that are not only about yourself but are also about those that are following you.” 

She uses the example of an account she follows which shares vintage fabric designs. Should this influencer change the focus of their content, the impact on their followers would likely not be deeply distressing. The same does not hold true if an influencer is using their platform to promote religion. They need to be more mindful and consistent. 

“Losing religion publicly can be a great sin,” said Gray. “It’s serious because it’s not only about you anymore. If what you did caused other people to struggle – if you put yourself out there as an influencer and you benefited from it and you set that aside – that’s not responsible.” 

Influencers are being watched in their personal settings, such as their homes and cars. Followers may develop a sense of closeness through these observations. The experience for the influencer though is very different. He or she does not have the same level of familiarity with her observers. “We need to be intentional and understand that we are creating relationships,” said Dr Gray. 

 Though followers may be upset about an influencer’s decision, Gray encourages thoughtful conduct in our engagement online.

“You are not fixing things by lashing out at someone. That is not the Islamic way.  You are just making sin for yourself. We need adab and akhlaq in interactions with people no matter who they are,” she said. 

Holding each other accountable is important for Muslims, but accusatory comments are not beneficial. Influencers who are consistent in wearing their hijab are also met with harsh comments.

Maintaining the Hijab

Tahirah Folk, New York native, model, and influencer, has often received unkind and accusatory comments online. As an African American she shares her experience with racism within the Muslim community, “The only place I felt I truly belonged as a Muslim was when I went for Umrah.” She addresses the criticism she has experienced about her approach to hijab in a Tiktok (@sincerelytahiry) post: “People who I will never allow to come for my hijab” went viral. The responses to it are polarizing. While some argue that women should be receptive to criticism, many women who wear hijab wholly endorsed the boundaries Folk asserts. “To give naseeha (advice) you have to be involved in the emotional wellbeing of the person,” Folk said. 

 Online, Folk has connected with her community celebrating Black Muslim women, and she is aware of the potential her prominence brings. “I have always been very intentional once I saw that I was getting a platform. I knew I wanted to represent a community that is often overlooked,” she stated. 

Upholding this concern, she called attention to a recent incident of exclusionary marketing. During New York Fashion Week. Veiled Collection, a popular brand for Muslim modest fashion, invited prominent Muslim modest fashion influencers to represent their brand. The concern was a glaring lack of diversity. Most influencers were light or fair-skinned. Folk’s view was echoed, and the complaint gained traction.  Veiled Collection finally offered a statement acknowledging their shortcoming in reflecting the diversity of Muslim women.

Though no actual changes were made to the event, the swift recourse inspired @everyblackmuslimgirl, an online community for Black Muslim to host EBMG Fest. This took place a few weeks after Veiled Fest and invited Black Muslim influencers and brands to showcase their products. It proved that collaboration opportunities through social media can amplify social issues and expedite solutions. 

Influencer and modest stylist, Hakeemah Cummings (@hakeemahcmb) shared Folk’s post criticizing Veiled Fest. She too has faced criticism online. She understands that there should be accountability, but she won’t respond to accusations or answer questions she feels she is not equipped to address. “The comment section is not a place to bully. If you are seeking a question, you should be asking a scholar. I am far from that.”

Real vs. Reel Friends

Cummings feels secure in her hijab and actively produces content to guide others on how to adhere to it, but she still relies on her sister’s opinion to ensure her content aligns with Islamic values. “There is really no one online who knows and loves me the way she does. I know that she will push back when I am getting self-absorbed and losing myself in whatever the trends are,” she added. She encourages women seeking support in their faith and hijab journeys to navigate online spaces thoughtfully and seek friendships in real life. “Have that one friend who you can call when you are struggling with your faith,” Cummings said. 

Social media platforms aim to increase engagement. More engagement yields more revenue. To achieve this, social media platforms employ a tool called the algorithm which ensures that users see content most like that which they engaged with the most. To manage this tool to the benefit of the user, Cummings recommends engaging and seeking out content that serves a person’s aspirations. 

She advises a break from social media for those that feel overcome with negative emotions. “It is emotionally taxing if the content you see online is constantly bringing you up and down.” 

Starting the Hijab

With every influencer who takes off the hijab, there are more who start wearing it. Dr. Areeba Adnan, a Toronto, Canada influencer and psychologist is one such example. Her platform @mintcandydesigns initially highlighted her DIY home projects, but now she shares more of her efforts in furthering her understanding of Islam. 

Adnan also teaches the “Influencer Blueprint,” an online course for aspiring digital creators.  “I feel a sense of moral responsibility to the eyes that are watching me. I feel it’s my responsibility to define my values and stay true to them.” 

Nevertheless, she emphasizes the limitations of the influencer culture. “There is an important distinction to be made- you may be influenced by people online, but they are simply people that you watch.”

Adnan has been open about her hijab struggle. Before she became an influencer, she had worn the hijab for five years. “I felt I wasn’t a good Muslim, and I am going to stop wearing hijab and focus more on learning about other aspects of my faith. That didn’t happen. It took me 12 years to come back to learning more about my faith and to wearing hijab again.” 

She advises women considering wearing the hijab or struggling to keep wearing it, to take time in assessing their concerns and persevere.  “It is important to really reflect and do the internal work, and it is important who we surround ourselves with in real life to help us understand why we wear hijab, “she said. 

“Good suhba (companionship) is essential to progress in our faith,” said Dr. Gray. “It’s not something that we have yet figured out how to entirely achieve online.” 

Sundus Abrar, an undergraduate degree in professional writing, aspires to generate dialog around current concerns within the Muslim community. 

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