Ramadan is one of the Arab region’s busiest shopping seasons. Generally considered a time of increased consumption, one recent, rising trend in the Middle East shopping landscape — particularly in GCC countries and the Levant — is Western-based, fashion retail brands releasing special Ramadan clothing collections designed, marketed, and sold exclusively in Middle Eastern stores. Beginning in 2014 with DKNY, the Ramadan collection landscape today boasts names such as Mango, Zara and GUESS.
The growth of these fashion lines comes in conjunction with the rise in Muslim — or, as the marketing world puts it, “modest” — fashion. “Modest” fashion is a global phenomenon that has produced images of runway ready, hijab clad young women from all parts of the world. Growing Western commercial interest in, and marketization of, the “modest” fashion trend has been covered extensively, most rigorously by Reina Lewis’s groundbreaking Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures. With H&M launching its first modest fashion line this past week in all sixty-nine countries in which it operates, it is hard to imagine momentum waning down any time soon. This is borne out by the financial windfall from these collections — Muslim women are expected to globally spend $488 billion by 2019, up from $266 billion in 2013, on fashion.
Despite the market visibility of of Muslim women, which is important in an increasingly neoliberalized world, the reality is that Ramadan collections manufacture a homogenized, if not arabized, image of Muslim women. These collections not only marginalize the multitude who cannot afford to buy into that image, but, more dangerously, narrows concepts of what a Muslim woman looks like. They, in fact, reproduce the same Western tendency to create fixed, stereotypes of Muslim women. In an effort to reformulate the orientalist imagery that has shrouded Muslim women, one trope – adopting Western notions of style – has been exchanged for another – Arabizing and homogenizing Muslim women’s fashion.
That being said, Muslim women — both locally in the Middle East, and globally in the diaspora and in Muslim majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia — have worked hard to reimagine the tired, lazy tropes that have dominated their image for too long. To transform the Western fashion industry and insist it pays attention to and include Muslims is a substantial victory. But, being Muslim is not a monolithic identity or expression. The idea that Zara’s Ramadan collection, for example, represents a Muslim woman’s modest style is silly. Rather than create and sensationalize a new category, these brands should adjust their stock in the cities and locations where they operate, to incorporate more local designers.
It is one thing for regional designers to release special Ramadan collections, another for global brands to do so. If international fashion companies truly want to represent the aspirations of Muslim women globally, then they must recognize that they are as different and diverse as any group of women.