A few years ago, Ascia Farraj tracked the fashion blogosphere with frustration. As a Muslim woman who wears a head scarf, known as a hijab, she rarely saw someone who looked like her. A fashion enthusiast from a conservative culture, she decided one answer was to create a blog of her own.
Today Ms. Farraj, now 24, has close to 900,000 followers on her Instagram feed, ascia_akf, who watch her model a kaleidoscope of stylish, but modest, outfits from brands such as Diesel and BCBG. (Some of her posts are sponsored by businesses in Kuwait, where she is based.) Not so long ago, it was considered radical for a Muslim woman to put a picture of her face online, Ms. Farraj said in a phone interview. “I was one of the first personal style bloggers to show my face.”
According to the Quran and the Sunnah, teaching and practices by the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim women are told to cover their bodies, and may show only their hands, feet and face. But some younger women have declared that modesty doesn’t require them to be invisible or unfashionable. Social media, and Instagram in particular, give cosmopolitan young Muslim women (highly educated, well versed in global cultural trends and open to Western influences) an opportunity to own a piece of online fashion space, typically reserved for those who expose more skin or wear body-hugging clothes.
“A lot of Muslim girls who wore the hijab got tired of being told that they couldn’t be stylish or that they had to be frumpy or dowdy,” said Melanie Elturk, 29, the founder of Haute Hijab, a Chicago-based company that sells head scarves and modest clothing. Haute Hijab’s Instagram page, which has more than 29,000 followers, is filled with smiling women in an array of bright and floral head scarves looking anything but dowdy.
As shown by the growing number of Instagram feeds focused on the head scarf, the hijab is having its moment. “You have a whole group of young women who like fashion, but they never had a platform,” said Zulfiye Tufa, 24, founder of the Hijab Stylist, based in Melbourne, Australia. Every day Ms. Tufa posts a hijab selfie to her more than 16,000 Instagram followers.
Three years ago, Saman Munir, 34, the founder of the blog Saman’s Makeup & Hijabs, said she couldn’t find one video about how to style a hijab. “Now there are so many hijab-style icons online,” said Ms. Munir, who is based in Toronto.
One such icon is Yasemin Kanar, 25, a fashion blogger and entrepreneur in Stuart, Fla., who grew up in Miami. Some of her YouTube videos on styling hijabs have been viewed more than a million times; her Instagram feed, YazTheSpaz89, has more than 77,000 followers. “People today are trying to stand out with their hijab style,” said Ms. Kanar, who studied biology at Florida International University. “They don’t want all to look the same.”
In the not so distant past, the hijab had a very different image in the West, one that stoked controversy in countries like France and led to stereotypes of oppressed Muslim women.
Instagram seems to have neutralized, or at least sidelined, that discussion by focusing on the aesthetics of the scarf. While there may still be political debate about the hijab, another parallel conversation sounds more like: “Did you see my hijab selfie? And how should I tie my head scarf?”
“I really feel like the hijab has become cool, almost to the where it scares me because trends come and go,” Ms. Elturk said in a phone interview from Dubai, where she recently moved. Ms. Elturk, who is a lawyer, said she has heard from women who are not Muslims who want to wear a head scarf after seeing her eye-popping array of images on social media.
The proliferation of glossy, fashionable images on social media sites could be making young women more confident about wearing the hijab. Part of the reason for this, Ms. Kanar said, is that the Internet has helped young women find more-flattering ways to wear the hijab. “Then they feel better about posting online,” she said.
The style tipping point may have been the release last year of the music video “Mipsterz,” shorthand for Muslim Hipsters, mixed to Jay Z’s “Somewhere in America” that featured urban women dressed in head scarves skateboarding, juggling and doing handstands. Their clothes were more evocative of hipster Williamsburg than a mosque. The video instantly went viral and has been viewed more than a half-million times since December.
“Ten years ago if you said that you were wearing a hijab for fashion reasons, people would have laughed at you,” said Ms. Tufa, 24, who plans to introduce her own fashion line in the fall.
“People used to feel sorry for us Muslim women and think we must be ashamed of ourselves for covering up, but now they see all these pictures online of us smiling and looking happy and fashionable and realize it’s not a sign of oppression,” Ms. Tufa said.
But fashion and faith certainly have their tensions. “Modesty is the opposite of what Instagram is about, so it can certainly be controversial,” said Ms. Elturk, who tries to limit the number of selfies she posts to keep her ego in check.
By putting images of herself on social media, Ms. Kanar, like other hijab fashion bloggers, has become a lightning rod for the debate about fashion and religion. Ms. Kanar said she has received a number of admonishing comments. One commenter told Ms. Kanar she should be home with her husband instead of on the Internet.
“These people are mostly from countries where there are more stringent rules about what you can wear,” she said. “But there are so many girls I am inspiring to wear a hijab, so ultimately I feel like I’m helping.”
Souheila Al-Jadda, 39, an editor at The Islamic Monthly, said Muslim women are under more scrutiny on social media. “There are imams who post selfies on Facebook or Instagram” said Ms. Al-Jadda, who wears a hijab but has never posted a selfie. “There is a huge double standard in how we judge women. Women should be proud of themselves. What is wrong with posting a picture online?”
More than a tension between fashion and faith, Ms. Al-Jadda sees the explosion of hijab fashion on social media as one between American and Muslim values. “How do you balance the two?” she asked, referring to brazen oversharing versus modesty. “That is something that young people will have to figure out.”
For now, some say Instagram has shielded them from the full onslaught of judgment because the older generation has yet to fully infiltrate the image-centered social network the way it has, say, Facebook. “The elders don’t know what is going on Instagram,” Ms. Elturk said.