Initially, the chirpy intro tune and her tantalising thumbnail seemed representative of typical homemaking channels on YouTube. From grocery hauls and decor DIYs to delicious recipes, Home Vlogs with Erum, a YouTube channel run by a Pakistani homemaker, seemed to me like a one-stop solution for all things homemaking. There was just one missing ingredient: Erum’s face.
Erum is part of a community of Muslim vloggers, largely homemakers and mothers, running lifestyle-cum-cooking or beauty channels offering an unflinching glimpse into their domestic routines. Some post profile pictures or thumbnail images—an eye here, a cropped body part there—but the subculture is set apart largely by their fierce resolve to avoid filming from the neck up.
Erum’s channels, and many others like hers, have thousands of dedicated subscribers and hyper-engaged communities. “When I came to the U.K., I think I forgot how to be myself,” reads a follower comment from a woman from the Muslim diaspora on a video uploaded by Sobia, who runs her lifestyle channel from the U.K. “I restarted self-care after seeing you.”
Ironically, many of these vloggers aren’t technically “seen”. But in their hands, voice and stories, Muslim women have found a bit of themselves. According to research exploring multi-level emotional engagement in vlogs, homophily (literally, the love of sameness) may be the driving point for these women’s vlogs.
Erum has been an avid follower of vlogs since 2011, long before they became popular in Pakistan. Her favorite channels are AprilJustinTV and itsJudysLife. Though both of these vloggers are based in the U.S., Erum followed their life journey closely and found the form of content resonated with her deeply. “When YouTube was banned in Pakistan, I used a VPN to watch them before sleeping,” she tells VICE. She started by offering honest reviews on her beauty and lifestyle channel in 2018: “I swatched products (like day/night creams or foundation) on my hands.” Vlogging soon followed.
She mounts her phone while filming because the wider angle showcases her workspace—not her. The content stands in contrast to the upper-body centered tutorials or Get Ready With Me (GRWM) videos dominating YouTube. Instead of selfie-sticks or gimbals, it’s engineered through intelligent mise en scène requiring equal parts editing, careful selection of content, and hawk-like vigilance.
“Sometimes, if I’m filming a cleaning routine and see more of myself than I’d like to reveal, or a really clear outline of my shadow, I’ll blur it out,” shares Zunaira Bint Waqar, who runs a similar vlogging channel from Ajman.
Others place stickers on their reflections in stainless-steel surfaces, like refrigerators, microwave doors and stovetops, or strategically position items over their face in the iconic mirror-selfie. And for greater mobility, some just don their full body veil or burka indoors and get on with their work unencumbered. Shaista of HHCraft and Design and H&H Vlogs UK tells VICE that choosing a genre that could be adequately represented without revealing her face was key. Her stitching channel has over 100K subscribers and she is awaiting YouTube’s Silver Play Button. Huma, a Muslim woman running a cooking channel from Canada, chose to remain faceless until she hit a million subscribers.
Instead of finding it difficult to connect with their audience, these content creators are thriving. The question, though, is why they hide their face.
For the record, it’s not because they’re unattractive or conscious about the way they look. “I take care of myself like anything,” laughs Erum. Subscribers regularly compliment her hands and feet. And while a piece on babe.net explored why hiding your face on Instagram helps increase followers, for these women, the phenomenon transcends the idea of gaining traction. It’s a manifestation of their spiritual beliefs, deep-seated cultural and gender norms—and plain personal preference.
Zunaira, who has been a student and teacher at a religious school, established ground rules rooted in spirituality and “purdah”, the Islamic practice of female seclusion which literally means curtain. “I won’t play music on my channel. And I won’t show faces,” she says. That includes others’ faces, too. She believes it’s “basic etiquette” to respect their privacy.
Erum’s choice, however, doesn’t stem from religion or cultural taboos. “I’m very comfortable not showing my face (while filming). I like the relative anonymity,” she explains. Many vloggers have similar stories. It’s often an autonomous decision, not superimposed by religion or social dogma. A domineering male influence “forbidding” them from revealing their face is, surprisingly perhaps for many, absent.
In fact, their husbands are often their biggest support-systems, many insist. Erum’s husband regularly contributes snippets of content and shares his business trip room tour upon her subscribers’ request. He urges other Muslim husbands to be supportive, too, as do Shaista’s and Sobia’s. “I’m blessed with an understanding husband and supportive in-laws,” says Zunaira. “My decision has nothing to do with them.”
Rather than feeding into a trope of subdued homemakers, these subcontinental women may be redefining the concept of choice in content creation. “I know my content is strong enough to not need a face,” says Sobia. “There’s this widespread belief that in order to be successful on social media, you have to show yourself. I wanted to dispel that myth.” Through her channel, she has developed a close friendship with other Muslim vloggers, both in the U.K. and Dubai. “None of us share our faces,” she says, “And we all motivate each other to keep producing quality content.”
Gulnaz Anjum, an associate professor of psychology at The Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, has noticed this trend catching on too. “You’re seeing this deluge of [Pakistani] women in their 30s or 40s claiming digital space,” she says, noting that previously, the digital arena was largely dominated by millennials, many of whom grew up with more access to public spaces. “Thanks to smartphones and internet data packages, more demographic segments are engaging on the platform [of YouTube].”
Engagement is relevant for serious content creators and their community of subscribers. Media psychologists reference interactions both with vloggers and among subscribers as key to the success of emergent online communities.
Studies of Korean vloggers preferring anonymity have also underscored how it becomes easier for viewers to live vicariously through them—an important part of the vlogging format’s allure in general. Without a face, followers can become participants in the vlog and imagine themselves in place of the homemakers par excellence—a coveted position many women might have grown up seeing extolled.
“Middle aged women are a very interesting sample. Their identity is regulated by so many people,” says. Anjum. Findings from her own research—of Muslim homemakers anonymously playing roleplay games on Facebook—revealed both husbands and sons had regulatory roles in the homemaker’s online presence. Women also had an extensive network to rationalise with, including in-laws. “Hiding their face or concealing their identity becomes a negotiating chip to help secure access,” explains Anjum.
She traced this informed identity, especially the strong preference to use “Mom vlog” or “Home vlog” in place of more personal names, to the 1970s and 1980s in Pakistan (a period of Islamisation when gender norms, motherhood roles and Pakistani identity were heavily reinforced)—a political landscape many women from this group may have experienced during adolescence.
“One can’t discount the piety dynamics for women. By embracing this innocuous, almost generic identity of a faceless homemaker, perhaps their families respect them more,” Anjum sums up. In a way, then, the rise of faceless vlogging in the Muslim world may be a less radical development than it seems.
But it’s a start. These vloggers are finding validation, communities, and slowly working towards financial emancipation as their channels get monetised. In their world, a “face-reveal” is a thing. Some do it to celebrate a certain number of subscribers or commemorate a significant life event. Some never do.
For Erum, it’s just a deeply personal choice. “Maybe someday,” she says when I ask her if she has any plans to follow suit. “But right now, I just don’t want to.”
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