Can Piety be Classy? Symbols and Societal Tensions Underlying “Branded” Hijabs
Malay/Muslim women in fashionable headscarves are influencing Islamic fashion trends across the globe and the trend can make a statement personally, politically, and piously.
In some Western societies, especially for non-Muslims, a woman wearing the hijab (headscarf) might symbolise oppression, backwardness, and patriarchy. But for the Muslim women who don it, including in Southeast Asia, a hijab manifests their piety and fulfils a religious requirement.
For middle-class Malay/Muslims today, the hijab, or what they call tudung, goes beyond representing piety. It is increasingly a sign of prosperity and being fashionable. Some women are willing to pay high prices for so-called “branded” tudung. Although the wearing of branded or luxury hijab can indicate a Muslim woman’s economic success, the authors argue that it does not necessarily fulfil the other aspects of personal religiosity nor demonstrate equality in society, especially when Muslims in the lower income groups cannot keep up with this sharia-compliant but elitist lifestyle.
Muslim women who don the hijab dispute critics who say that their headscarf is a symbol of subjugation. Many middle-class Muslims equate a woman’s choice to don the hijab with her emancipation, empowerment, and – in the case of the more expensive ones – high purchasing power. More women are wearing branded hijabs today. The market potential is enormous: Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic nation, while maritime Southeast Asia is home to millions of Muslims.
Interestingly, these hijabs are a Southeast Asian Islamic export to the broader Muslim world, as sellers of these have received requests from purchasers living in the Middle East, the wider Asia-Pacific, Europe, and the U.S. The popularity of such products might be a small factor in dispelling the notion that Southeast Asia plays a secondary role vis-à-vis the Arab world on matters involving religion and religiosity where Islam is concerned. Previously, a Malay/Muslim woman wearing the hijab may be seen as promoting Middle Eastern culture or Arabisation. Now, Southeast Asia is influencing sharia fashion trends in the other direction.
Branded hijabs are widely worn in Southeast Asia, which demonstrates some Muslims’ increasing purchasing power. One example is the Malaysian dUCk hijab brand which has garnered the attention of modern young Muslim women. The brand is popular in Singapore and Brunei for its colourful designs and high-quality scarves. Its co-founder, Vivy Yusof, a celebrated hijab-wearing woman (hijabi) and social media influencer is the main driving force behind the company’s success.
The brand’s patrons are primarily fashion-conscious middle-class women. dUCk scarves range from S$42 (for a basic scarf or shawl) to S$120 (for limited editions). By contrast, a headscarf that will easily pass the religious requirement would cost as little as S$5 in a regular shop, the same price as Malaysia’s Aidijuma brand. Credit must be given to the dUCK’s marketing strategy that has enticed young women to pay that much for an attractive 113cm by 113cm piece of cloth.
dUCK brand and others like it such as Indonesia’s home-grown Button Scarves successfully appeal to different segments of Malay/Muslim middle-class women based on their self-identification. This spans from their taste in fashion to feeling empowered, perhaps even to their association with the global Muslim ummah (community).
To illustrate, the dUCK’s Blurred Lines collection was inspired by the Louvre Museum in Paris while its “dUCk X Barbie” collection is marketed to those who wish to appear confident and stylish, like jet-setters. Nationalist elements can also be portrayed: there are collections called “The Singapore dUCk” and the “Kuala Lumpur dUCk”. (The former features landmarks such as Marina Bay and the Singapore Flyer, while the Petronas Twin Towers and the surrounding city adorn the latter.) The brand tugs at consumer heartstrings by riding on humanitarian efforts for global conflicts or tragedies affecting Muslims. For example, profits from the sales of the 2021 “Palestine dUCk” were meant to be donated to the Palestinian cause.
The dUCK group’s collaboration with Princess Sarah of Brunei resulted in the creation of “The Royal dUCk”, which further affirms the brand’s association with the elite. The brand has amassed a strong consumer base, with even newly launched products running out of stock.
Consumers of such pricy items must not lose sight of broader development issues affecting the Islamic world, including reforms in politics, education, and religious institutions.
There are other competing regional hijab brands and styles, which have expanded their reach to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., through online sales. They include Naelofar (Malaysia), Aleia (Brunei), and Bokitta (Lebanon). Naelofar, a brand founded by the celebrity, Neelofa, wants to attract patrons of all ages but mainly younger patrons, with its modern and elegant collections and exports to over 30 countries. The hijab is beginning to resonate with fashion-conscious Muslim millennials (24-39 years of age). Bokitta, which sells a practical two-piece hijab, attracts older consumers between 30 and 45 years of age. However, branded hijabis represent the voice and outlook of mainly Muslim women in the middle and upper classes. Consumers of such pricy items must not lose sight of broader development issues affecting the Islamic world, including reforms in politics, education, and religious institutions. To be truly pious, Muslim consumers must be mindful of, and not further contribute to, the global trend that commodifies some aspects of Islamic practices and spirituality. Muslim reformers constantly emphasise the faith’s essence — humility, equality, and charity, among others — as key values. All Muslims must refrain from demonstrating riya’ (showing off) and extravagance, even as every Muslim woman has the right to wear a branded hijab, which can counter the narrative of women’s subjugation. If the values are ignored, efforts to resist the lingering perception that the hijab equals suppression will be merely cosmetic.
Siti Mazidah Mohamad was Visiting Fellow at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.