ROME — When Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana announced their new line of hijabs and abaya and sheyla gowns, they joined a growing list of fashion houses trying to tap into the lucrative $266 billion market of Muslim shoppers, which is expected to double in the next five years.
But not everyone agrees with the business plan. Some anti-Muslim voices in Italy warn that Western companies cashing in on Islamic culture spells trouble, while many Muslim women say they feel exploited.
“We are being targeted as consumers in a business world that will invest our money against us or against morality in general,” says Alisha Deshmukh, in a comment on a Muslim blog asking: Would You Buy a Dolce Gabbana Abaya? “Arab money: Money owned and spent by Arabs, who are known to be wealthy in many countries. Their desire is that we spend with them. My answer is no! Invest back in my country instead.”
Those who share an anti-Muslim sentiment in Italy warn that catering to Islamic culture could be dangerous. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s xenophobic anti-immigrant Northern League, has been able to push through a law that prohibits Muslim women from wearing the hjiab headscarf in hospitals, post offices, and other public places. “Catering to the culture we don’t agree with is like a false invitation of acceptance,” he said last weekend. “We shouldn’t be sending that message.”
Indulging Muslim fashionistas is nothing new in the design world. Fashion houses like Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Oscar de la Renta, and even Zara have been creating modest clothing for Ramadan for years, but almost exclusively online or in stores in Arab countries. H&M even hired 23-year-old Muslim model Mariah Idrissi to help boost their line of clothing aimed at Islamic women. Philistine Ayad, a Palestinian-American women, tweeted her thanks to D&G for attempting to bridge the gap between cultures. “Thank you, @dolcegabbana for seeing that there is beauty in our differences. #MuslimandProud”
Writing in The Muslim Girl blog, Engie Hassan applauds the Italian design house for creating a fashion line that goes beyond a specific Muslim holiday. “As many designers have sought to find a connection with the Middle Eastern market on their terms, Dolce & Gabbana is one of the first major luxury labels to truly create a collection exclusively for some of the highest-spending yet underserviced female shoppers in the world,” Hassan says. “By understanding the nuances of the Middle Eastern culture and the specific need for traditional pieces—such as an abaya and sheyla that focus on modesty yet are still high-fashion and contemporary—they will lead the pack into this beyond emerging market and are sure to have a fashion-minded company in the UAE and its neighbors.”
The go-to fashion site for Arab women, Style.com/Arabia, which first broke the D&G story, even published a makeup guide for those planning to buy the haute hijab line. Titled “Luminous Makeup to Pair With Your Dolce & Gabbana Hijab,” the piece warned that modest dress Muslim women adopt is not always seen as a fashion choice.
They showed a number of tweets underscoring how controversial the issue is. “No thank you Dolce & Gabbana, my hijab is not a fashion statement. I cover to please Allah and Allah alone,” tweeted @fahimah_uncover4what. “Do we Western women need to start wearing the veil, too?” tweeted someone called “@Fatimapetrucci.
The site also published a response tweet by Stefano Gabbana, defending the fashion house’s decision to expand its line. “It is only for the Middle East; don’t worry, no one will oblige you to wear a veil… we don’t have that culture, but we should accept the Middle East’s.”
As The Daily Beast reported last month ahead of World Hijab Day, while the issue of the hijab headscarf and other modest dress may be a fashion statement for some Muslim women in the West, it is something entirely different in many Muslim countries around the world. “It is simply an undeniable fact that most Muslim women attacked around the world for how they dress are attacked by other Islamist and fundamentalist Muslims, not by non-Muslims,” wrote Maajid Nawaz. “Muslim women wear headscarves called hijab for many different reasons. For some it is simply a religious duty, others believe it to be a sign of ‘modesty,’ some do so as a badge of identity. For them wearing their hijab is like a Muslim flag. And others, still, are forced to do so by their families.”
Providing a more fashionable option for those for who it is a true choice of religious expression is admirable; but for many who don’t have that right to choose, a prettier hijab is simply a gilded cage.