Aquila: A new kind of Muslim woman?

First published in Muslimah Media Watch

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For those familiar with women’s “lifestyle” magazines, the call to be “sexy” in some way or another is not new. We women need to have “sexy” everything: attitude, legs, skin, armpits, you name it. So pervasive is this message that I’m surprised that no one has spontaneously combusted from sexual arousal at the sight of a women’s magazine devotee.

And then we have the new Aquila magazine, whose key buzzwords are modesty and fabulousness.

As the “world’s first English fashion and lifestyle magazine for cosmopolitan Muslim women in Asia” that is based in Singapore, Aquila serves up the standard menu of any glossy: tips on make-up, shopping, book and film reviews, and some lightweight advice on career-building.

Aimed at readers from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, modesty and fabulousness are far from alien concepts: Muslim women of all ages, hijabis in particular, in Southeast Asia are intensely responsive to new faith-based sartorial trends, perhaps more so than women who do not cover their hair.

That said, Islamic consumerism, as cynical as it sounds, is a fairly new phenomenon in which women in the region form an active role. Aquila is an obvious byproduct of the purchasing power of Muslim women in Southeast Asia, but whether or not it aims to be representative of its target audience is quite another matter. So let us explore this issue by breaking it down to three parts, based on how well it’s doing for its intended readers thus far:

The good: The one thing I can generously say about Aquila is that there seems to be an intention that it offers something for everybody: from articles on face creams to an as yet developed page on “science,” which I hope will be a more informative take on scientific breakthroughs, instead of the science of eye creams and hair serum.

The bad: The beating heart of any self-respecting popular publication is the opinion piece. Often brief and pseudo-philosophical, the op-ed is, for me, what makes fashion magazines human and less banal. But that was what I thought before I came across the first opinion piece on Aquila. Entitled “Leap of Faith,” it reveals the thoughts of a Muslim man whose moral dilemma about his daughter dating a non-Muslim seems to completely eclipse his social drinking habits, at his favorite drinking hole no less! The piece ended on a cryptic note that suggested a sense hypocrisy that plagues the urban, middle-class and the selectively liberal Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, but lacked any insight or depth in what is a serious issue that very much concerns the intended reader.

The could-be-better: Though brand-spanking-new with the impressive accolade of being a kind of landmark magazine for Southeast Asian Muslim women, Aquila looks more like a half-built project with little pizzazz.  The graphics leave plenty to be desired, but then that wouldn’t be such an issue if it had more substantial content. I get the feeling that Aquila isn’t really targeted at parents, as it lists “kids” as a “lifestyle” issue that sits at the bottom of the drop down list. But I shouldn’t really be asking for the moon here, as most fashion and beauty magazines rarely figure parenthood as a particularly “trendy” subject.

In sum, Aquila is far from divinely inspired. It is a bland derivative of many beaten dead horses called women’s fashion magazines, except with less exposed flesh. It reminds me why I’ve stopped reading such things for good. I’m also not entirely convinced that it is trying hard to be representative of the young, upwardly mobile Muslim women who are taking Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia by storm. If the magazine’s not so modest vision of being “the world’s most trusted authority on the intelligence of affluent Muslims” is anything to go by, I would suggest Asian Muslim women to read elsewhere for fabulous inspiration.



Marketing Muslim lifestyles and redefining modesty

This post was first published on Muslimah Media Watch

If a hijab in Pucci-designed print could speak, what would it say?

I attended a seminar presented by Professor Reina Lewis on Muslim women’s lifestyle magazines last night and was faced with this bizarre question. It all started with the actual seminar itself, which showcased the latest research adventures of the fashion and design professor. Weaving together previous work that included alternative Orientalist narratives in the 19th century and queer lifestyle magazines, Lewis’ paper focused on the Muslim women’s magazines that emerged at a crucial time (post-9/11) when more positive representations of Muslims were needed in a Western public discourse that had  none. And the so usual suspects were mentioned: emel, Sisters, Muslim Girl, Azizah, and an anomaly, Alef–being the only one that didn’t try hard to get a particularly Muslim lifestyle look.

Having the enviable position of fashion professor, Lewis was more interested in how women/the human form were presented the magazines, what Islamic fashion is really all about, and the advertising contained within the magazines than the content. For her, visual representation in print media of women who were getting more covered up than their mothers, grandmothers, and their non-Muslim peers was striking and counter-cultural.

The same way Nylon and Harper’s Bazaar are different from each other in presentation and content, Muslim lifestyle magazines set themselves apart in these ways too, but addition to that the magazines self-define or defined by others as either “Muslim” or “Islamic”. emel, Lewis said, is a “Muslim” magazine in that it reaches out to an audience of diverse backgrounds and levels of religiosity, while Azizah is more “Islamic” because it caters to a more conservative readership. It’s hard to not find these labels contentious as they could lead to a series of polemical questions, like, is emel less Islamic than say, Azizah or can a lifestyle magazine as a guide help a reader gain a more Islamic look?

Of course the latter is a silly question, but having read fashion and lifestyle magazines myself before I’d say that there is a level of self-identification in (a few of) the models and the “I am what I buy” ethos that is much invested in brand advertising today. And so for attaining the trendy or at least up-to-date Muslimah look, one only need to look at what other people are wearing, and simply flick through magazines for reference.

During the Q & A session, someone from Saudi Arabia had asked a thought-provoking question about the real purpose of fashion in faith-based women’s magazines. It was a question that I had pondered over a long time ago when I decided on two things: to not be a follower of fashion and not to wear the hijab. The question goes something like this, “If fashion is about self-expression and to a large extent ‘being noticed’, how does Islamic dressing and the fickle world of fashion reconcile with the concept of modesty and inconspicuousness?” I remember the days when I had to wear the hijab in college and becoming the object of male attention which made me uncomfortable. Without the hijab, I found to my relief that the unwanted attention seemed to have lessened, but this had nothing to do with how much skin I was showing with or without the hijab, rather the headscarf became a marker of what good young Muslim men found attractive. This was when I learned that the hijab had more complex meanings.

This brings me back to the rhetorical Pucci headscarf and what modesty means to different Muslim women. In addition to being a symbol of devotion, modesty, and cultural identity, the hijab today has taken an extra meaning, one that fits nicely with the global consumer culture and current trends. The hijab as represented even in the most conservative Islamic women’s magazines often doubles up as a fashion accessory.

Not to sound overly fussy, but isn’t being fashionable attention-grabbing and hence immodest? I need to mention again that I am not into lifestyle magazines, fashion, and do not wear the headscarf, so I’m perhaps the least equipped person to explain whether Islamic fashion is modest or not. At the same time I think my assumptions that modesty clashes with fashion is probably unfounded, too.

What are your thoughts?

Foreign bodies as sexual playgrounds

This post was featured in the first Asian Women Blog Carnival at ciderpress’s blog.

So there was this American guy, Jake, who sat with Gareth and me at lunch last Saturday and was telling us how much he wanted to go to Malaysia because it’s apparently a great place to meet women, and claimed that the country is chockfull of hot-bodied beauties. He also didn’t waste time to explain that the reasons behind his quest was down to his general lack of luck with women and self-confessed socially-inept ways. And so like the many sad, lonely white men with money to squander, he’d like to try his luck with Asian women because they, y’know, love white men, are ultra-feminine and so willing to please, and all that BS.

Now, this was unflattering and offensive on extreme levels to both my boyfriend and myself. First, while being the target audience for this kind of orientalist fantasy talk, Jake had sensed that he was in the company of a fellow Asian fetishist. Secondly, there was a sense that I can help him accomplish his quest, or rather conquest, by offering tips on picking up women from my remote corner of the world.

He chose the wrong woman to discuss his fantasies with.

Men like Jake perpetuate racism, sexism, and colonialism under a more subtle guise in that it’s not about denigrating Otherness, but rather desiring and yearning for it. Today, foreign bodies (places, women, food) are not the scary and mysterious things of the past anymore. Instead they are to be embraced. They make you hip, worldly, in touch with distant cultures of peoples you may never meet in your lifetime (Yirgacheffe coffee, anyone?). So on the face of it, fascination with the exotic Other doesn’t look like racism and the colonial conquest of yore.

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Book review: The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie – Intimacy and Design by Malu Halasa and Rana Salam

Image via Amazon.co.uk
Image via Amazon.co.uk

Syria’s unlikely notoriety for racy underwear collides head on with the stereotyped image of the veiled and prudish Muslim woman. In a way, ‘The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie‘ (2008, Chronicle Books) had come at an opportune time to dispel these fossilised images, but at the same time will feed to a ‘Western’ obsession with what lies under the veil.

Some of the raciest, most imaginative articles of ladies undergarments can be found in Syria: from G-strings attached with toy mobile phones, angel outfits complete with a pair of wings, to ‘curtain’ bras that draw open at a naughty touch of a remote control. It is perhaps a surprise then that these are manufactured by conservative Sunni families for an equally conservative clientele. Suffice to say, there is no hiding the fact that a fulfilling sex life for married couples is crucial for Muslims, and the expectations of a new bride to be at her most erotic on her wedding night is paramount.

The history of Syrian-made lingerie became interlinked with the country’s economic success story following the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Before the days of outrageous underwear, Syrian women wore imported bras and cheap ill-fitting cotton vests and elasticised bands. Today, home-grown lingerie competes with transnational brand names as a coveted commodity found everywhere in the shopping complexes, hairdressing salons and in the souks across the country and its neighbouring regions.

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Cupcakes and consumerism

Malaysians love trends and food. Mix them together and you get a craze. What gets certain products/fashions popular are the symbols attached to them and their increased value when displayed in full view of the public. These symbols often signify status that conflate certain aspects of economic and social power, and constructs a particular image the wearer of those symbols wants to project.

Before I get too abstract, I’d like to present a case in point: the role of cupcakes in urban Malaysia. This year unfolded upon Malaysians the zenith of the humble cupcake. Not that cupcakes themselves are anything special; they’re easy to bake and can be purchased cheaply in just about every bakery and confectionery in town for as long as I can remember. But what makes them special  and a status symbol is the fact that they are sold in upmarket cafes in the trendiest shopping districts. In other words, cupcakes have become in themselves a mark of urbanity, sophistication, and aspiration.

Similar to the way brand names like Starbucks inspires its patrons to adopt a particular lifestyle; one that “appreciates” world cultures (Kenyan, Java, Columbian, Italian), one that is tech-savvy, and in touch with Western-style modernity, upmarket cupcakes is just another extension of Malaysia’s aspirational consumerist culture.

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