Beyond Fashion Tips and Hijab Tutorials: The Aesthetic Style of Islamic Lifestyle Videos
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Among young women, lifestyle videos have become extremely popular on YouTube, and a similar trend has emerged among young Muslim women who share modest fashion tips and discuss religious topics. This paper examines the videos of two prominent Muslim women on YouTube, Amena Khan and Dina Torkia, in an effort to understand how they engage with aesthetic styles in order to work against Western stereotypes of Muslim women as oppressed and lacking individuality. Islamic lifestyle videos might appear to simply promote a vacuous focus on appearances, but I argue that it is through the aesthetics and affects of these videos that Amena and Dina do political work to redistribute the sensible and shift what is considered attractive, beautiful and pleasurable in Western society. Additionally, the hybrid aesthetic styles and affects of authenticity and pleasure, which are possible in digital spaces like YouTube, offer Amena and Dina the chance to control their own visual images and to resist being coopted as icons of Western freedom or Islamic piety.
Lifestyle Videos on YouTube and Islamic Fashion
A popular trend on YouTube are lifestyle videos, in which self-appointed fashion and makeup gurus share tips, promote products and don the latest trends for the pleasure of their loyal followers. Certain video-makers, such as Michelle Phan, Bethany Mota and Grace Helbig, have become successful celebrities through their online work, attracting millions of views for each of their videos and earning a living through advertisements, product promotions and public appearances. A similar but distinct form of lifestyle videos has also emerged among young Muslim women. However, the Islamic lifestyle videos are notably different because, in addition to fashion and makeup tips, these women incorporate discussions of religious topics, such as how to dress modestly, whether certain makeup products are permitted in Islam, how to avoid touching men, and advice for fasting and praying during Ramadan.
While these Islamic lifestyle videos borrow trends from the mainstream lifestyle videos on YouTube, they are also part of a much larger movement of Islamic fashion. This industry, centered on modest fashion styles, is growing internationally and is estimated to be worth around 100 billion USD. Islamic fashion is incredibly popular online with boutiques, fashion blogs, Instagram photos and YouTube videos all promoting the latest styles. However, the use of the term Islamic fashion is contested among Muslims, with some claiming that Islam does not support fashion’s hyper-focus on external appearances and others arguing that beautiful fashion might portray Islam in a much-needed positive light. This paper engages with Emma Tarlo’s assertion that Islamic fashion offers young Muslim women a way to deal with the “representational challenge” that they face, as their bodies are hyper-visible as Muslims and they address the negative stereotypes about Islam. Islamic fashion constitutes a strategy for navigating this challenge, allowing Muslim women to be fashionable and stylish while maintaining modesty in appearance and behavior.
This paper will examine the visual style of Islamic lifestyle videos in an effort to understand how Muslim women engage with the aesthetics and affects of these videos in their efforts to resist stereotypes and dominant dichotomies. My analysis will focus on the videos of two prominent Muslim women on YouTube: Amena Khan, known as Amenakin online, and Dina Torkia, known as Dina Tokio online. Both of these women live in the UK but are from non-British backgrounds. Amena’s family is Indian, and Dina’s father is Egyptian. I selected the video channels of Amena and Dina because they are by far the most successful Muslim women, in terms of total numbers of viewers and followers, within this community of online lifestyle gurus. Amena has over 325,000 subscribers on YouTube, and her 240 videos have been viewed over 28 million times. Dina has over 370,000 subscribers and her 325 videos have attracted more than 43 million views. Additionally, the women each run their own clothing boutiques, selling the modest clothing items featured in their videos. While Amena and Dina share a lot of similarities in terms of their backgrounds, the styles of their videos are quite distinct. The following analysis centers on the overall aesthetic style of the videos, as well as deeper reflections on some of the more notable videos.
Anxiety over Muslim Women’s Appearances
Before discussing Amena and Dina’s YouTube channels, it is essential to lay out the various competing pressures on Muslim women and the anxiety over Muslim women’s bodies, appearances and emotions. First, the women are under constant pressure to represent Islam in a positive light and against Western misrepresentations of Muslim women as oppressed and, often at the same time, hyper-sexualized. In her highly influential essay after the events of September 11, Lila Abu-Lughod addresses the Western, post-colonial obsession with trying to save the mythical veiled Muslim woman. She argues that the Western narrative of saving Muslim women from the oppression of Islam is used to position Western liberalism as superior to Islam and to disregard the ways that Western countries have been responsible for social oppression in Muslim-majority countries. Additionally, Mohja Kahf formulates the concept of the Pity Committee to discuss this trend in Western culture of promoting stories of Muslim women who have been victimized by Islam. The representation of the Muslim woman as victim and escapee becomes hegemonic in Western society; in other words, “it is not seen as a stereotype but as The Truth: that Islam is exceptionally, uniquely, inherently evil to women seems to be one of the received truths of our era, axiomatic.”
Furthermore, a long postcolonial visual history exists of portraying Muslim women as objects of sexual desire. In his extensive analysis of harem photography, Malek Alloula explains how Western men in the period of colonization were fascinated with metaphorically going under the veil of the Muslim woman in order to access the “phantasm” of the harem space. A series of photographs during this time period emphasized the gesture of women lifting the veil, and this obsession continues today with numerous celebrities, such as Madonna, Rihanna and Lady Gaga, wearing the veil as a sign of sexual availability.
At the same time that Muslim women must be aware of Western dichotomies of either their oppression or hyper-sexuality, they are often under pressures from within Islamic communities to always represent Islam in positive ways. In her book on the experiences of second generation Arab Americans, Nadine Naber discusses how Arab immigrants employ the “politics of cultural authenticity” in an attempt to maintain authentic Arab culture while assimilating into middle class American life. While Naber is focused on Arab Americans, her work is still influential for this study because of her emphasis on how those who are positioned as “Other” strive to articulate an identity that works against these Orientalist dichotomies. Naber argues that many first generation Arab immigrants maintain binaries that simply reverse Orientalism; Islam becomes the positive force within the evil and corrupt Western society. Naber’s book focuses on second-generation Arab immigrants who strive to articulate a new identity that breaks out of dichotomies of Orientalism or anti-Orientalism. Mohja Kahf describes a similar bind that Muslim women find themselves in when Muslim male leaders develop what she terms the Defensive Brigade to protect Islam from the critiques of the Pity Committee. Kahf details, “Where the Pity Committee vilifies, the Defensive Brigade sugarcoats, rather than seeking genuine complex analysis of gender relations in the world of Islam.” Instead of being concerned with real issues around gender and sexuality within Islam, Muslim women’s bodies become pawns to be used by both apologists and critics of Islam in a larger power struggle.
Finally, women’s bodies in Western cultures often cause anxiety over how they appear in public and how they elicit emotional responses. In addition to pressures on Muslim women to present Islam in a positive light, they are also under pressure within the neoliberal and postfeminist contexts to perform an ideal form of femininity. Rosalind Gill argues that in this context women are expected to do endless self-work on their bodies in order to perform a traditional form of femininity. She states, “The body is presented simultaneously as women’s source of power and as always unruly, requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodeling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever-narrower judgments of female attractiveness.” The overall trend of lifestyle videos on YouTube illustrates these pressures for women to police their bodies, appearances and emotions.
These competing tensions and dichotomies are clearly illustrated by taking a cursory glance at some of the comments that are posted on Amena and Dina’s Islamic lifestyle videos. When Dina posts a fashion spread video, she receives comments such as this, “Your [sic] a disgrace to Muslims. If your going to represent Muslims and Islam than do it as it should be done. PROPERLY. Gain more knowledge of Islam and the ladies of Islam before representing.” This commenter illustrates the argument that Muslim women should always be devout and obediently follow impossible religious standards. On the other side, commenters frequently question whether Muslim women are really free from the oppression of Islam. When Amena posts a video asserting her choice to wear the headscarf, several commenters dismiss the authenticity of this freedom. One commenter wrote, “You are not free because you are a slave to allah and mohammad [sic]. Actually just mohammad. I would ask you to THINK, but anyone stupid enough to blindly believe in a 7th century man, doesn’t have the capability to think. I bet that you don’t even know the reason you are commanded to cover up.” Although several other commenters respond by defending Amena, the frequency of these accusatory comments illustrates the persistence of hegemonic discourses around the oppression of Muslim women. These two comments illustrate the divisive backdrop to Amena and Dina’s videos: Muslim women are pressured from within and outside of Islam to appear in certain ways.
The Political Potential of Aesthetics and Affects
The appearance of Muslim women’s bodies, their aesthetic styles and their use of affects all create anxiety within Western culture and Islam. Muslim women’s bodies are frequently used as pawns in larger political debates between Islam and the West. Because of this history of using the appearances of Muslim women as political tools, it is clear that the work of Muslim lifestyle gurus on YouTube to assert control over their own visual representations is highly political. Rather than fit into one side or the other of the tired dichotomies between the West and Islam, Amena and Dina engage with aesthetic styles and affects that articulate hybrid identities as Muslims living in the West.
In order to comprehend the political potential of aesthetics, it is necessary to move beyond associating aesthetics with beautiful images. Instead, I engage with a concept of aesthetics that encompasses how the visual, sensational, emotional and embodied nature of material forms, such as the fashion styles in these lifestyle videos, form the subjectivities of both the creators and viewers. Birgit Meyer’s concept of aesthetic formations, explains how aesthetics mold subjects into larger groups, “‘aesthetic formation’ captures very well the formative impact of a shared aesthetics through which subjects are shaped by tuning their senses, inducing experiences, molding their bodies, and making sense, and which materializes in things.” People are connected into communities, specifically religious communities, based on sensations, embodiment, aesthetic styles and emotions.
In addition to how aesthetics constitute religious subjects and form them into larger communities, aesthetics also have political potential to influence larger society. Jacques Rancière emphasizes the daily sensual experiences of aesthetics, or the modes of perceiving the world through what we are able to see, touch, taste, hear and feel. Rancière formulates the concept of the distribution of the sensible to explain how those in power determine who will have access to certain forms of aesthetics. Rancière writes, “Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.” However, aesthetics can be used to resist dominant powers because it is through images, embodiment, visual culture and other sensible modes that people can reconfigure the sensorium in an effort to create equal access to political spaces.
Because Muslim women are often silenced in political debates or are used as visual symbols, the women who create these lifestyle videos work through aesthetics, one of the few ways that they are allowed to contribute in public debate. In their book on Islamic fashion, Annelies Moors and Emma Tarlo argue that Muslim women wear modest but fashionable clothing in public to fight against dominant assumptions that they are backwards and oppressed, contending “that it is through their corporeal presence that many young Muslim women find ways of presenting an alternative position to the public.” While the voices of Muslim women are often unheard in public discussions, many women find opportunities to express themselves visually through their fashion.
At first glance, these Islamic lifestyle videos might appear to simply promote a vacuous focus on appearances or to imitate the mainstream lifestyle videos but with headscarves. Instead, I want to argue that it is through the aesthetics and affects of these videos that Amena and Dina do political work to redistribute the sensible and shift what is considered attractive, beautiful and pleasurable. Young Muslim women must address several conflicting pressures and dichotomies. As will be shown in the analysis of these videos, Amena and Dina respond to these pressures by presenting themselves as comfortably living within these tensions. Instead of fitting into one end of the dichotomies—Islam vs. the West, traditional vs. modern, oppressed vs. sexualized, or authentic vs. commercialized—these women negotiate their positions within these ambivalences. Rather than assuming that no authentic cultural or political work can come out of these lifestyle videos, I take up Sarah Banet-Weiser’s assertion that the ambivalent spaces of brand culture are productive spaces that allow for cultural and political actions. Additionally, I want to argue that the hybrid aesthetic styles and affects of authenticity and pleasure, which are possible in digital spaces like YouTube, offer Amena and Dina the chance to control their own visual images and to resist being coopted as icons of Western freedom or of Islamic piety.
Amena Khan / Amenakin
Amena Khan gained popularity on YouTube through her tutorial videos on various ways to wear a headscarf. She posted her first simple hijab tutorial in 2009, and since then, Amena has expanded her videos to include makeup tutorials, beauty tips, outfits of the day, recipes, haul videos of her latest purchases, and travel diaries. Amena’s success can be attributed to her ability to employ a beautiful aesthetic style along with an authentic personality and affects of positivity and serenity. Additionally, Amena uses the hybrid style of YouTube to incorporate elements of Islam into her videos. This blending of styles serves as a political declaration that Amena and other Muslim women can be fashionable and beautiful subjects while still foregrounding their religious beliefs.
As a point of comparison to Amena’s videos, imagine two dominant images of Muslim women. First is the Western image of the victimized woman, covered by a veil, which restricts her movement, her ability to speak and her individuality. Second is the Islamic image of a devoted wife and mother, who eschews the temptations of Western culture in favor of traditional religious values. Bearing these two contradictory images in mind, it is easier to see how revolutionary it is for Amena to create an original aesthetic style that resists dominant assumptions of Muslim women as oppressed victims and powerful pressures from within Islam for women to appear as pious icons of the religion. Amena is successful at performing a traditional form of femininity, which Rosalind Gill explained is idealized in the postfeminist moment. Amena can apply flawless makeup for every occasion, her skin is always impeccable, she knows how to tie a headscarf in hundreds of styles, she buys the hottest new beauty products, she maintains a proper weight, and she wears the latest trendy ensemble. Amena’s adept performance, in which she “flaunt[s] her femininity,” can be seen as a political gesture to resist dominant ways of seeing women. By embracing Western standards of beauty and Islamic values of modesty, Amena contradicts the stereotype of an oppressed Muslim woman and rejects the assumption that pious Muslim women can’t incorporate Western culture.
While Amena overemphasizes a more traditional form of femininity, this allows her to achieve success in the postfeminist moment by performing as an attractive feminine self and tapping into the contemporary cultural obsession with the authentic. Sarah Banet-Weiser explains that the performance of a traditional form of femininity is closely tied to what is seen as authentic within the postfeminist context. Amena effectively performs an ideal form of femininity while still projecting an aura of authenticity. The authenticity of Amena’s videos is due in large part to their visual aesthetics. Amena films most of her videos in an informal studio space in her home. To her left, she has a lamp with various pink lights coming out of a tree-like structure. Behind her is a room divider with white lights twinkling from behind white curtains. She sits on a plush red couch, and the back wall of the room is painted a neutral gray. It appears that Amena uses some professional lights and a higher quality camera because the lighting on her face is always flattering. The use of this studio space in her home allows Amena to create videos that appear semi-professional while still creating a connection with viewers by filming in the comfortable, domestic space.
Amena begins all of her videos with one of two greetings: “As-salamu alaikum, ladies!” or “As-salamu alaikum, lovelies!” This ritual opening signals both that her viewers are part of the community of Muslims, so she is granting peace onto them, and that her viewers are part of her community of “ladies” or “lovelies.” It is a common practice for YouTubers is to address their viewers with terms that signify friendship and intimacy. Throughout the videos, Amena stares straight at the camera, talking directly to her viewers and always smiling. She does some simple editing to her videos in order to cut out mistakes or dead airtime. Unlike some other video-makers, Amena rarely includes bloopers in her videos, but her videos never appear artificial. These practices allow Amena to create formal and well-polished videos without sacrificing the feelings of closeness and genuineness. Amena carefully negotiates a fine line between creating videos that appear as staged and inauthentic versus videos that come across as amateur.
An important part of this negotiation is Amena’s affective labor. Michael Hardt defines affective labor as, “immaterial, even if it is corporeal and affective, in the sense that its products are intangible: a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, passion—even a sense of connectedness or community.” Amena engages with affects of pleasure, positivity and humor in order to connect with her viewers. Her demeanor in the videos is upbeat, calm and confident. Amena’s affective labor performs political work that counteracts dominant stereotypes of angry, depressed or subjugated Muslims. Instead, Amena is serene, peaceful and happy—a representation that is often absent from mainstream portrayals of Muslims. In response to pressures from within Islam, Amena does not shy away from illustrating the affects of satisfaction that come from consuming Western culture. Her affects work in concert with the visual aesthetics of the videos to draw viewers in. The aesthetics of her videos—the visual style, personalities, emotions, language and embodiment—are all part of the labor that Amena does in order to connect with her viewers.
For instance, in a recent video entitled “HUSBAND Q&A: JEALOUSY, MAKEUP + MORE!,” Amena films the video with her husband, Osama. The couple sits together on a loveseat and answers viewers’ questions on a variety of topics from their relationship as a couple to their children to how they deal with jealousy. Throughout the video, Osama has his hand on Amena’s leg, and they joke around with each other. They sip tea while casually answering the questions. When they read a question from a viewer about whether Amena is ticklish, Osama tests this question out on camera. Amena immediately bursts out laughing and curls up in a fetal position. During the video, they each reaffirm their love and admiration for each other. Osama says that he never thinks about other women because he has Amena, who he describes as extremely talented and attractive with or without makeup. The aesthetic style of the video is light, cheerful and fun with upbeat music playing in the background, the couple smiling and laughing as they cuddle on the couch, and quick cuts that keep the video moving through the various questions and answers. Both Amena and Osama deploy affects of pleasure, positivity and affection as they interact with each other. The positive affects and engaging aesthetic style of this video form a closer connection to viewers. When there are so few positive portrayals of Muslim women as genuine individuals who have loving relationships and enjoy life, Amena’s videos have legitimate political potential to shift misconceptions. Instead of rhetorically reiterating that Islam is not oppressive, Amena simply engages with aesthetics and emotions to visually portray herself as happy, liberated and authentic.
Amena also incorporates elements of Islam into the affective disposition and aesthetic style of her lifestyle videos. She uses Islamic phrases like Al-hamdulillah to thank God for good things and Insha-allah to remind herself that the future is in God’s hands. She often mentions God or elements of her faith in her videos. She is respectful and hardly says anything negative about anything or anyone. Amena always maintains modesty and piety in her bodily comportment. She talks in a smooth and calm manner, never raising her voice or talking too fast. She sustains a straight posture and uses flowing gestures with her hands. She presents herself as cute and attractive but never overly sexualized. She rarely speaks in a sarcastic manner or is rude or bawdy. Amena’s calm and polite behaviors and emotions might appear to be the opposite of an empowered feminist position. On the other hand, the understanding of individual agency within feminist theory must encompass, as Saba Mahmood explains, “not only in those acts that resist norms but also in the multiple ways in which one inhabits norms.” The fact that Amena is embodying Islamic norms in her demeanor is a political action to resist dominant Western conceptions of how women, especially Muslim women, should appear and behave.
Amena’s videos feature a hybrid style, allowing her to present a blended identity as a fashionable but modest Muslim woman. YouTube has some flexibility in its structure, which allows for hybridity and experimentation in style. Stewart Hoover and Nabil Echchaibi explore how the digital spaces allow for more fluid, dynamic and blended expressions of religion, and they understand digital third spaces as “sites where individuals use the technical capacities of the digital to imagine social and cultural configurations beyond existing binaries of the physical versus the virtual and the real versus the proximal religious experience.” Amena uses the hybrid aesthetics of YouTube to blend elements of her faith with contemporary fashion styles and, consequently, to resist Western assumptions of the oppression of Muslim women and Islamic pressures on women to reject Western styles.
For instance, Amena posts numerous videos, sharing new fashion looks. In one video called “EID OUTFITS + UK EVENTS!” Amena shows off three new outfits that she purchased for the Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan. As Amena holds up the different outfits, she considers how she would add layers to make the outfits more modest. When Amena posts videos about specific Islamic topics, such as arranged marriages, preparations for Ramadan and relationship advice, she still references the type of headscarf she is wearing or includes a link to her online boutique in the information box. Amena’s style might be similar to mainstream lifestyle videos, but she always incorporates elements of Islam: modest clothing, Islamic phrases and religious teachings. Amena’s discussions of the visual styles of her clothing serves as a way to redistribute the sensible by asserting that modest clothing can be fashionable and that Muslim women can be style innovators.
While Amena subtly resists stereotypes that Muslim women lack individuality and the ability to produce innovative styles, she also does more significant political work in a handful of videos that address controversial topics. In one video, “TAKE OFF YOUR HIJAB! #worldhijabday,” she addresses a generic Western audience that assumes Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab. The aesthetics of this video are notably distinct from Amena’s lifestyle videos. She does not greet her viewers. Instead, she begins speaking formally from a script. Her attitude is serious with unusual moments of sarcasm thrown in; she only smiles in the video when she is making a sarcastic point. For instance, she grins when bringing up the contradictions in arguments against the hijab, “How ironic, when the people who are supposedly pro-freedom incessantly insist that you take of your hijab, themselves dictating the garb that we should wear. So, freedom means to conform to your criteria about what I should wear? Right? Do I have that right? Right!” Amena points out a flaw in this common liberal feminist argument that women should be free to make their own decisions. The problem with this type of argument arises when women decide that they will use their freedoms to engage in actions that appear to be oppressive, such as wearing modest clothing. As discussed above, Saba Mahmood critiques this tendency within Western feminism to only see agentive, political actions as those acts that resist, rather than embody, certain norms.
Although the aesthetic style of this video is distinct from her other videos, Amena still does affective labor to perform as polite, flawless and inviting in order to connect with viewers. She might be saying harsh words, but Amena’s smile softens the blow and deflects accusations of being a raging and irrational Muslim. Amena appears as confident and logical as she blends the beautiful aesthetics of her appearance with her crisp and clear arguments and her strong and defiant attitude. Amena is clearly not oppressed or just a pretty face, as she strongly speaks for herself and explains how her beliefs compel her to choose to wear what she wears. While some may argue that women like Amena are just focused on the consumption of goods, Amena’s videos have these small moments of resistance when her religious convictions complicate the presumed freedoms of secularism and neoliberalism.
Dina Torkia / Dina Tokio
Dina Torkia shares similarities with Amena: they both live in the UK, became famous online for their hijab tutorials, and now run online fashion boutiques. On the other hand, the aesthetic styles of their videos couldn’t be more different. If Amena is the mature, ideal, always positive and beautiful older sister, Dina is the silly, boisterous, fun loving, flawed and sarcastic kid sister. Dina’s videos are more similar to the immature, awkward style of popular non-Muslim YouTubers like Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart. Just a glance at the screen grabs for Amena and Dina’s channels show the difference. Amena always takes an image where she is grinning and the lighting highlights her skin, whereas Dina chooses images in which she is making a silly or somewhat unflattering face. Although Dina presents herself as funny and awkward, she still uses the aesthetics and affects of her videos to affirm that Muslim women can be attractive, innovative and beautiful without compromising their faith.
The overall aesthetic style of Dina’s videos is informal, high-energy and entertaining. Instead of a traditional Islamic greeting, she begins all her videos by exclaiming, “Hi guys!” She speaks loudly and quickly, and she will occasionally swear. She often speaks in funny accents, makes unusual sounds and distorts her face. She will move closer to the camera in order to emphasize points. Similar to the style of other YouTubers, Dina makes frequent cuts in the video but does not edit out mistakes. It is almost a trademark of Dina’s style that she includes bloopers at the end of her videos. Unlike Amena, Dina does not have a set space where she films her videos. Sometimes she is inside her home with a neutral background, but frequently she films when she is traveling, either in the car or walking around. The aesthetics of the traveling videos tend to be more chaotic as Dina will move the camera around in front of her on a stick with no clear focus point. The lighting in Dina’s videos is adequate but not perfect; strong shadows are often visible on her face.
All of these aesthetic elements contribute to an aura of authenticity that surrounds Dina’s videos. In comparison to other entertainment media, Michael Strangelove explains that the form of YouTube allows for a more informal aesthetic style, such as low-quality web camera videos and unedited footage, and this feeds people’s desire for authentic, real-life videos. He writes, “The real you within YouTube is fostering an emerging aesthetic value, an expression of a desire for something other than the highly produced, glossy reality of commercial media.” Viewers are attracted to these amateur videos because they offer a sense of connection that is not as available with traditional celebrities. In an article about the work of YouTube star Grace Helbig, Anne Helen Petersen explains the need for video-makers to maintain a balance between creating well-polished videos and employing an aesthetic style of imperfections and amateurism. She writes, “The goal, after all, isn’t to look like television; it’s to look like a YouTube video, only better. Better-lit, better edited, better scripted, but still with the feeling of spontaneity, DIY, and I-did-this-in-my-bedroom that defines the medium.” Even though the video-makers have high-quality cameras and use editing software to clean up the videos, they still keep in certain bloopers to maintain an authentic style. Petersen explains, “Those aesthetics of intimacy contribute to the feeling of authenticity: The more lo-fi the production seems—the less mediated—the easier it is to believe that you are accessing the ‘real’ star.”
Dina frequently imitates this authentic style by filming videos in her home and while traveling, using low-quality footage and including mistakes in the videos. Because Dina is willing to take viewers with her on her trips and to show herself making mistakes, viewers feel like they know the real Dina. In one video that Dina films with her husband, Sid, called “HUSBAND TAG,” the video begins with footage of Sid trying to set up the camera while Dina looks on, makes funny faces and roles her eyes. Dina could have easily cut this scene out of the final video, but she likely chose to keep it in because it gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the filming preparations. Viewers feel like they are getting a sense of what the actual Dina is like, when in fact, these spontaneous moments are often deliberately crafted. Dina is hyper-aware that she is always on camera. She likely films her videos with the video screen facing her because she is constantly adjusting her headscarf and making faces into the camera. Obviously, Dina is comfortable on camera, but these feelings of authenticity are disrupted when we see Dina always tweaking her appearance.
Both Dina and Amena frequently incorporate their husbands into their videos, and these are often the most-watched videos, garnering positive feedback. The presence of the husbands in these videos has positive consequences for Dina and Amena. As in most YouTube lifestyle videos, the incorporation of friends and special guests often enhances the feelings of authenticity and intimacy that viewers feel towards the video-makers. In a similar way to how the women use production techniques to appear as more authentic, they also incorporate other people in the videos to validate their own sincerity and to allow the viewers to more easily place themselves within these intimate conversations. Watching the women interact with their husbands demonstrates for both Muslim and non-Muslim viewers that Amena and Dina are real women who have deep relationships with their spouses. In addition to normalizing these women for non-Muslim viewers, the presence of the husbands in the videos demonstrates to the traditionalist critics within Islam that the women are exemplifying the proper Islamic disposition required to be devoted wives and mothers.
Additionally, Dina’s fashion videos visually present her fashion as attractive, vibrant, unique and innovative. Similarly to Amena’s work, Dina employs aesthetics and affects to shift assumptions away from the negative stereotypes about Muslim women, especially the assumption that modest Islamic dress must be oppressive, drab and uniform. In a similar study of Asian fashion blogs, Minh-Ha T. Pham examined how bloggers work against stereotypes of Asians as backwards and unstylish by representing themselves as fashionable trendsetters. While some scholars see the work of fashion blogs as false forms of political empowerment, Pham argues that the use of sentiments in the blogs is a political action. “Yet to situate fashion-themed blogs wholly within the discursive and institutional domain of lifestyle politics is to ignore the politically enabling work of the sentimental in some blogs.” Similarly, Dina employs aesthetics and affects in her fashion videos to represent herself as stylish and contemporary while still maintaining her faith and cultural traditions.
For example, in one video entitled “LOOK BOOK,” Dina poses in urban and wooded outdoor spaces, wearing various outfits from her own collection. She imitates the poses from mainstream fashion images: she places her hands on her hips, folds her arms, turns away from the camera, giggles and smiles, twists and tilts her body, and touches her face and headscarf. The visuals of this video contradict the stereotypes that Muslim women are oppressed, lack individuality, and are covered in outdated black gowns from head to toe. Dina’s outfits are colorful and original, but she still covers her head and doesn’t reveal the shape of her body. By incorporating the aesthetics of mainstream fashion spreads, Dina is unapologetically asserting that Muslim women can appear as innovative and stylish. In addition, these fashion videos promote affects of pleasure and satisfaction instead of the affects of fear, pity and despair often associated with images of “veiled” Muslim women. Dina’s videos work against the common visual trope of the Pity Committee, as Kahf discussed, which presents Muslim women as covered and oppressed by Islam.
Although Dina does political work to assert that Muslim women can be stylish and beautiful through her fashion videos, she will occasionally address viewers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who disapprove of her work online and how she presents Islam. In general, Dina’s no non-sense approach leads her to speak to critical viewers in a sarcastic tone. For instance, she posted a video, “COMMENTING ON COMMENTS!” in which she called out viewers who left critical, mean and inappropriate comments on her videos. Because of all the pressures that Muslim women face for speaking publicly, this video serves as a way for Dina to reiterate her authority on Islam. Most of the commenters criticize Dina for not dressing in a way that they deem appropriate, either because she does not cover all her hair or she sometimes shows her neck. Others criticize the style of her videos and the fact that Dina speaks loudly. When one commenter addresses Dina as “sweetie” before trying to correct Dina on what she is wearing, Dina responds by grinning and saying in a high pitched voice, “Hey sweetie pops, don’t worry, don’t worry about me. Just worry about yourself. Ok, sweetie? Sweetie, pops, yeah?” The humorous and sarcastic style of this video serves as a way for Dina to reassert that she is not a voiceless victim of Islam, and has a right to speak on these topics. Additionally, Dina resists pressures from within Islam to maintain a stoic and pious disposition, especially when faced with criticisms. This video illustrates that Dina is a complex person who has a full range of emotional responses to criticisms of her work.
Resisting Binaries and Stereotypes
Amena Khan and Dina Torkia have become the two most popular Muslim women on YouTube because of how they engage in very distinct aesthetic styles: Amena is always positive, beautiful, sophisticated and traditionally feminine, whereas Dina is funny, somewhat immature, hip and stylish. Despite the differences in their styles, Amena and Dina both use the visual aesthetics of their videos and their fashion styles as modes of public expression. Islamic lifestyle videos frequently are dismissed in favor of what is presumed to be the more serious work of political activism online through written blogs and articles. Certainly other Muslim women are publicly active in significant ways online, but Islamic lifestyle videos indirectly address political and religious issues. Within contemporary Western culture, there is an unfair assumption that Muslim women should only speak about their religion and why they wear the hijab. Within these videos, Amena and Dina demonstrate that religion is part of their lives but not the only topic that they want to discuss. These women express the complexities of their experiences and the various challenges that they face. Their interest in crafting fashionable outfits is deeply connected to their religious convictions. The fact that Amena and Dina seamlessly incorporate Islamic aesthetics into lifestyle videos represents a more significant political move to affirm that Islamic aesthetics can be incorporated into mainstream fashion. Ultimately, the women create an aesthetic style in these videos that allows them to blend the various elements of their identities and to negotiate the ambivalences of contemporary life. They resist the Western stereotypical image of the oppressed and veiled Muslim woman, while at the same time complicating the Islamic idealization of the pious and obedient woman. Dina and Amena employ the aesthetic style of YouTube to assert that they control their own appearances and in the process, to shift the larger sensory regime of what is considered attractive, stylish and enjoyable.
Kristin Peterson is a doctoral candidate in Media Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has her M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research examines how Muslims in North America engage with online media as spaces to explore different discourses, aesthetic styles and affects. Her other interests include the use of Arabic in social media, Islamic fashion, feminism and religion, and discourses around authenticity.
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