Yasmin Chebbi describes her style as edgy. She wears vibrant colors, mixes dresses with combat boots, and sports handmade jewelry. She cites her mother, a major Vogue enthusiast, as her greatest style inspiration, and loves making outfits out of pieces that wouldn’t conventionally match. She also wears a hijab.
Chebbi is not alone in her quest to merge religious obligation with fashion and fun. Rather, she belongs to a larger cultural phenomenon, a group of young women who want to break the stereotype of the hijab as a symbol of archaism and oppression.
Together, they form the ‘Mipsterz.’
“A Mipster is someone at the forefront of the latest music, fashion, art, critical thought, food, imagination, creativity, and all forms of obscure everything,” writes the group’s official Facebook page, Mipsterz- Muslim Hipsters. “A Mipster has a social mind, and yearning for a more just order, a more inclusive community unbounded by stale categories, unwilling to plod blindly along in a world as obsessed with class as it is unmindful of its consequences.”
What originally began as a listserv between a small group of friends—a place to share anything from cool new music and discussions of politics and war to available housing and ethical consumption—evolved into a “welcoming, non-judgemental community of people with varied interests, ideas, and passions,” Chebbi says.
“Too often, Hijabi women are placed in categories of expectation,” Chebbi says. “The stereotypes of being meek, submissive, backward, and bland have been projected onto me far too many times. Growing up wearing the hijab and living in America, I never felt I belonged to a particular group. I felt that to others, being devoted to my faith and adopting interests such as music, art, and fashion were in conflict.”
It was out of this conflict that the Mipsterz were formed. Rather than making a statement on what the hijab is or isn’t—or what Islam is or isn’t—the girls came together to produce a “true portrayal of women who exist somewhere in America.” The concept eventually spread by word of mouth, going viral in December 2013 when a video titled Somewhere in America #MIPSTERZ hit the internet.
Produced by Abbas Rattani and Habib Yazdi of Sheikh and Bake Productions, the YouTube video features over 12 young Muslim women, all sporting strong sartorial style with their hijabs.
Twenty-eight-year-old Hajer Naili, who stars alongside Chebbi in the video, became involved with the concept through Underwraps, the first Muslim female modeling agency. “We have rarely seen such images of veiled Muslim women going viral,” Naili told The Daily Beast. “Usually, we see very depressing, sad depictions of Muslim women. [In the video, however] I see a bunch of empowered women who navigate with confidence through their multiple facets of success and confidence.”
Although the video has received mixed reviews, it does give a positive representation of the women. A young girl skateboards in a yellow silk blouse and black-and-white striped pants. Another adjusts her brown fur coat over her all-black ensemble. A third rocks a baseball t-shirt that playfully reads, “You’re killin’ me smalls.” They smile, laugh, and even dance, able to display their style preferences while still respecting their religious obligations. Yet, it’s not so much about the video itself, but rather the girls behind it and the group’s empowering message that make Mipsterz a growing cultural phenomenon.
“Islam is not a monolithic religion. It’s made up of multi-faceted individuals with different ethnic backgrounds, and who, therefore, dress and live the religion according to their understanding,” Naili explained. “This [message] is mainly addressed to the Muslim community, from where we got a huge amount of backlash after the video was released, because some judged we were not dressed ‘like Muslim women should be.’”
But it wasn’t only people outside the Mipster community who reacted adversely to the video. Participant Noor Tagouri posted her disappointment in the choice of Jay-Z’s somewhat derogatory song Somewhere in America as the soundtrack. “When I was first asked to be a part of this project, I was told it was for an official music video of Yuna's song Loud Noises, an inspiring song on friendship and love,” she wrote on Facebook. “I was never told the music video fell through, and in turn a video was still going to come out of the footage shot and be set to Jay-Z's Somewhere in America.” While Jasmine Crawford agrees that the video shows that Mipsterz look as good and have as much talent as those women who don’t cover their heads, she too was disconcerted with the film’s production. “A lot of us were not aware that they were going to put us in a video where Jay Z is talking about n***ers and b*tches, and things that I wouldn’t want to be represented by,” she said.
Yet, whether the feedback was positive or negative, “we were able to show that we don’t fall into the stereotypes that the media portrays Muslim women to be,” Sandra Shamy, a 29-year-old fashion blogger and designer based in L.A. says. She hopes that the video “[stresses] the importance of [her] deep-rooted culture in the arts and breaks down the barriers that Muslim women need to hide behind because they are not always accepted in society.”
What the girls are trying to prove is that Muslim women are not hiding behind their veils. The Mipsterz want to show that the hijab can be treated as any other piece of clothing. “They made a big splash when Sex and the City came out and they were showing that the women were wearing all black and had their face covered, and once they went inside they stripped and they had on like mini-skirts,” Crawford said. “But that’s basically what it’s like. When it’s cold outside you put on your coat, and what you have underneath is what you have underneath. Your coat is not exactly what you are wearing for the day; it’s just your outer garment. And that’s what we do. We have our outer garments, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t skateboard; it doesn’t mean that we don’t climb trees.”
Northern California fashion designer Nancy Hoque, who assisted with costuming the girls in the video, is herself no stranger to the modest yet stylish fashion of Mipsterz. “Our motto is, ‘Scarves are a tool of empowerment,’ she says of her line SIXTEENR. “Mipsterz are an underground scene that’s going around cities, online, and across social media. A lot of my scarves and the way we do our photography present that fashion. I wear a headscarf so I experience it. I know what it’s like to try to create unique outfits and try to have a personality behind it and be current with what’s mainstream.”
And Hoque’s right. It’s not often that we see a stylish Hijabi women portrayed in the mainstream fashion and culture worlds. But could Mipsterz be the sartorial stars that change that?
Maybe Mipsterz will be the fashion pioneers—both domestically and internationally—who help all Muslim women feel empowered to be true to both their religion and personal aesthetics. And if not, maybe they can spread the word that regardless of their faith, deep down, they’re just women who like style just as much as the next person.
“Muslim women are not oppressed,” Naili says. “They are successful and educated women. They are free women. This video is proof that we can be Muslims, live in the United States, dress according to our beliefs and be in harmony with ourselves and our Creator.”