The Muslim female millennial cuts a powerful image in Malaysia today. Richer, more educated and better traveled than ever before, they are redefining their roles at work, in society and at home. The perfect accessory for this newfound status? Luxury hijabs.
The days of associating hijabs with rural backwardness are over. Facelifted into the 21st century, the hijab (“tudung” in Malay) is now a symbol of cosmopolitan female Muslim success, with the jacked-up price tags to show for it. Uber-luxe ranges can cost between RM1000 ($245 USD) for a simple silk piece to a whopping RM33,000 ($8,000 USD) for one embroidered with Swarovski crystals.
“If they can spend thousands [of ringgit] on a handbag, why not hijabs?” Nurzihan Hassim, a senior lecturer in media and communication at Taylor's University who studies hijab prominence in regional media, told VICE.
Predictably, corporations are keen to meet the demands of this new bourgeoisie niche. From 14-year-old schoolgirls to couture houses, everyone wants a slice of the lucrative “Muslimah” clothing market. Jovian Mandagie, the go-to designer for Malaysia’s VVIPs, debuted his Jovian Hijab collection in 2013 after noticing the spiked demand for them.
It consists of “designer diffusion” options, or hijabs that cost anywhere from RM89 ($21 USD) to RM200 ($48 USD) each. Dimaz Vinno, a spokesperson for the brand described the items as “vibrant, comfortable and chic to be worn from am to pm." Wearing the hijabs in Malaysia today “represents modesty in style,” he said.
But in the Instagram era, it's hijab brands helmed by celebrities and influencers that are most successful.
Duck Scarves is one of them. Founded by Vivy Yusof, a blogger turned social media star, Duck Scarves offers hijabs in a range of sizes, textures and prints (there’s even one printed with inspirational millennial-speak “You Got This!”). Prices start around RM100 ($25 USD) for the basic line and go up to ten times more for its 100 percent silk monogrammed range.
It’s not the most expensive (that would be Ariani or Bawal Exclusive) or the most accessible (Naelofar Hijabs) line in Malaysia. But it certainly wields the most cultural clout among millennials to boast. As its tagline goes, it’s “The New Cool For Scarves”.
Fans call themselves Duckies. They wait eagerly for each new “drop,” another piece to add to their #DuckTower assembled from the Hermes-like boxes each Duck scarf is sold in. So coveted are these products that even these boxes have their own resale market. Think Supreme, but for hijabs.
One limited edition piece, which costs RM800 ($196 USD) and features the Kuala Lumpur skyline, was reportedly sold out in just five minutes. By 2018, the brand has sold more than one million scarves since its launch four years before.
But its rise is not without criticism. The most obvious being the alleged exploitation of religion for profit.
As empowering and inclusive as they are, Nurzihan believes there is a profit motive involved. More celebrities are cashing in. After all, the more social media followers you have, the more brand awareness you create, she explained.
“Why not bank on it? Look at Kylie Jenner,” she said.
The Duck Group and Naelofar Hijabs did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Luxury hijabs may be the new cool in Muslim-majority Malaysia today. But this wasn't always the case. Unlike Middle Eastern countries, there is no legal obligation to wear the veil here. And up until about a decade ago, many would be hard-pressed finding hijab options beyond the very basics.
Then a groundbreaking campaign by shampoo brand Sunsilk came along. It was 2013, and Muslim women were revealed as an untapped market worth hundreds of millions of. Sunsilk gambled with an ad with no conventional hair-washing routines, only showing how using Sunsilk evoked feelings of freedom and confidence in its hijab-wearing ambassador. The experiment paid off. Sunsilk's sales rose nine percent that year.
The hijab became a “catalyst” for brands to approach Malay Muslim women, Nurzihan said.
“Popular telemovies and drama series started to portray more women in hijabs," she said. "They always appear submissive at first but they become victorious in the end. When these series became popular, these actresses become spokespersons for products. This made more women think, 'You know what, wearing it isn’t a bad thing after all.'"
Watch: How Iran's Hijab Protests Went Viral
Except that now not wearing it or not wearing it right can be seen as a bad thing.
There is a growing stigma against non-hijabis now, according to Dian Sofia, a legal counsel based in Kuala Lumpur. "To wear a hijab in Malaysia today is to be “socially acceptable,” she said.
To her, premium hijabs are “a scam, like everything else sold under the banner of Islam." The workmanship and fabric do not justify their hefty price tags. Local brands’ websites do not show commitment to humane manufacturing processes or environmental sustainability, factors which could justify its high costs, either.
Instead, they sell a distinct kind of Muslim lifestyle where looking modest equals to being affluent, classy, feminine and beautiful, Dian said.
“Women are simplified or reduced to pictures of smiling, cute, modesty-performing girls with great makeup on an app," she said "It is not a real representation, but a fake romanticized idea. Those who refuse this mold are mocked, insulted and attacked for refusing to be 'good women.'"
Dian may have a point about the current hijabi fashion movement being classist and sexist.
There is no question that Malaysian Muslim women have shattered glass ceilings in years past. Women's labor force participation is now 54.7 percent, nearly double the figure in the 70s and 80s. In universities, they outnumber men.
In fashion, local, Birkin-toting entrepreneur extraordinaires lead its top hijab brands, amassing power, fame and profit unheard of just a decade ago.
But with the median monthly wage for 20-something women only between RM1,400 to RM2,145 ($340 to $525 USD), it raises questions as to just how many are able to afford a hijab costing at least 10 percent of their income. How many can display their affluence for the ‘gram when most young workers earn less than the living wage?
These figures matter when it comes to reconciling these luxury items with the hijab’s function as a garment of modesty. If the wearer can afford them without compromising their Islamic duty to contribute to charity, it’s not a vice, according to Dr Norsaleha Mohd Salleh of the International Islamic College University. Intention matters too. It mustn't be to flaunt, whether its one’s wealth or physical beauty.
The verdict ultimately rests between the luxury hijab wearer and God. But at times, it can feel as if this isn't so.
For lifestyle influencer Faa Firds, this is a battle she can't win either way. In Malaysia, she's harassed online for showing too much skin when she wore the turban. Abroad, she’s pulled aside at airport security simply for wearing the hijab.
The hijab is “essential” to her. “Yet, it's not the most important thing [that defines me]. The biggest thing lies in your heart,” she said.
Essentialising the hijab is problematic. And a solution could lie in better representation by brands. Include “everyday girls of different sizes, backgrounds, face shapes,” Faa suggested, not just those “with perfect cheekbones and a beautiful nose."
“It’s cool because then younger girls can have someone to look up to," Faa sai. "They can say, 'Look, she looks like me, she wears a hijab like me but she’s not restricted. She can be in a modern world and still be modest.'"