The New Faces of Islam

By Givhan, Robin | Newsweek, September 26, 2011 | Go to article overview

The New Faces of Islam


Givhan, Robin, Newsweek


Byline: Robin Givhan

They're proud Muslims, they're top models, and they're remaking the fashion world's ideal of beauty.

When 20-year-old Hind Sahli, a brown-skinned young woman with dark shoulder-length hair, was growing up in Casablanca, she used to watch television shows like America's Next Top Model and daydream about being on a fashion runway. Sahli was appropriately tall and thin, but in Morocco, the beauty ideal is a voluptuous figure. She was mercilessly teased for her spare frame and would soothe her hurt feelings by sashaying around her living room.

Sahli, who is both Arab and Muslim, was also growing up in a culture where modeling bumps up against significant cultural taboos. As a matter of religion and tradition, female modesty is expected--not the kind of provocative and exhibitionist behavior the mainstream fashion industry rewards.

As Sahli strutted around the room, her mother--a deeply religious homemaker who wears the hijab--was amused by these preoccupations. Sahli's father, a policeman, was not. Still, neither of them had much to say. It was just make-believe, after all.

About that same time, in the tourist town of Nabeul, Tunisia, a young woman with the gamine features of Audrey Hepburn was having similarly fanciful thoughts. Hanaa Ben Abdesslem had always drawn lingering glances because of her soaring height and impossibly thin frame. The stares made her self-conscious and shy. But when she flipped through fashion magazines, she'd gaze at those "tall, thin, beautiful women, and I thought perhaps someday I could feel at ease."

Five years ago, the Arab world was mostly disconnected from the global modeling network. In the absence of established agencies and international magazines, modeling wasn't even a defined profession. Foreign travel was difficult both logistically and culturally. Then there were all manner of preconceived notions from around the globe about what it meant to be an Arab woman.

To accomplish their goals, Sahli and Ben Abdesslem would have to step outside the boundaries of tradition, leave the security of their families, and breach the confines of once unyielding cultures and prejudices--not just in the Arab world but beyond it.

And that's precisely what they have done. In the last year, especially, both Sahli and Ben Abdesslem have made significant headway--between them, they have walked in shows for labels such as Givenchy, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vera Wang, and Phillip Lim. They have posed for Italian Vogue and French Vogue and shot advertisements for Top Shop and Lancome.

Though they have crossed paths only a handful of times, the two women are now inexorably linked through timing, culture, the assumptions others make about them, and their desire to represent 21st-century Arab women to the world.

The fashion industry tends to treat cultural differences as entertaining biography; ethnicity as little more than aesthetics. But the recent experiences of Sahli and Ben Abdesslem show them to be charting a new course on the global runway. For them, fashion is not about gossipy chatter and luxurious indulgences, or even primarily about commerce and entertainment. It is about empowerment, opportunity, and modernity. It is a chance for these young women to be seen, to be heard, and, quite simply, to be.

"It's given me independence," Ben Abdesslem says of her career. "It's given me confidence in myself as a woman."

Paradoxically, women from the Arab world have long been among the most voracious consumers of fashion. Indeed, the economics of the French haute couture industry relies on Middle Eastern customers. But their consumption is mostly private. The industry adores places such as Marrakech as backdrops for an exotic fashion shoot. Yet while the runways have welcomed models from South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and the rest, Arab women have until now been largely absent.

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