When L’Oreal announced it had hired Amena Khan, a British, hijab-wearing model and beauty blogger, for its latest hair care product Elvive, the company was widely applauded for it strides towards inclusion. After all, L’Oreal prides itself on “championing diversity.”
However, just four days after the announcement, Khan announced on Instagram that she was stepping down after it emerged that she’d posted a series of critical tweets about Israel four years ago. L’Oreal swiftly released a statement declaring that the company “is committed to tolerance and respect towards all people” and “we agree with her decision to step down from the campaign.”
In other words, they were not sad to see her go.
This is not the first time L’Oréal has hired and then almost immediately parted ways with a model from an underrepresented community for past social media posts. Five months ago, the company cut ties with Munroe Bergdorf, its first transgender model, over her remarks about white America’s systemic racism.
Major brands and corporations have recently been targeting Muslim women, particularly hijab-wearing Muslim women, in recent marketing attempts to showcase their diversity efforts. Nike’s launch of its Pro Hijab for female Muslim athletes and Mattel’s hijab-wearing Barbie inspired by fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad are just small examples of major corporations featuring visibly Muslim women in the name of diversity and female empowerment.
But are these efforts really all that empowering when Muslim women have to police their opinions on controversial topics?
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh found herself in a similar position just last week. The founder and editor of MuslimGirl.com received Revlon’s Changemaker Award in recognition of her advocacy for Muslim women.
But Al-Khatahtbeh declined the award.
“It means so much to me when @muslimgirl’s work is recognized and elevated in spaces from which we’ve been traditionally excluded,” she wrote in a caption on her Instagram post. “But that’s what makes it even more important at this moment to elevate and stand up for ALL women and girls.”
Al-Khatahtbeh said she could not accept the award because she believes the company is not inclusive. In particular, she said Revlon has given Gal Gadot, a brand ambassador for Revlon’s newest “Live Boldly” campaign, a pass when it comes to the “Wonder Woman” actress’ political beliefs. Gadot has strong opinions about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is a vocal supporter of the Israel Defense Forces.
So why is Gadot rewarded for being an empowered woman with opinions and views of her own, while Khan loses out for sharing hers?
There’s a low bar for Muslim representation in mainstream media, which often portrays the Muslim community as politicized and associates its members with war, terrorism and foreign affairs. News stories about Muslims are overwhelmingly negative.
Stories about Muslim women, in particular, often focus on oppression or on companies that feature Muslim women to advance an aesthetic of diversity. But purposeful, authentic Muslim representation, in which a Muslim woman can express her opinions freely and without consequence, is desperately missing.
When Muslim women like Khan ― who are already vastly underrepresented in the mainstream ― have any sort of visibility, it becomes conditional, and they’re forced to monitor their speech.
“White women and men are allowed to apologise and get their career back on track. Minorities on the other hand, one red card and you’re out,” Bakkar told HuffPost in an email.
Gadot’s outspoken support for Israeli policy has done nothing to discourage companies like Revlon from naming her as their brand ambassador. On the other hand, L’Oreal dropped Khan four days after her critical Israel tweets were uncovered.
L’Oreal and Revlon did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
Despite this, the push to reach Muslim consumers continues. After all, the Muslim market, comprising an approximate 1.7 billion consumers, is a marketable one. According to Thomson Reuters’ State of the Global Islamic Economy Report, “the global Islamic economy has a potential bigger than every country in the world except China and the United States.”
Female Muslim consumers alone are estimated to spend $464 billion on fashion and $73 billion on cosmetics globally by 2019.
Major corporations are well aware of this. Just last year, London held its first Modest Fashion Week to appeal to Muslim fashion designers. Other major brands such as DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana and Uniqlo have all offered modest fashion lines.
In 2016, CoverGirl named its first hijab-wearing ambassador, 24-year-old beauty blogger Nura Afia. Halima Aden rose to stardom signing with IMG Models and walking at New York’s fashion week for Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 5. In 2015, H&M, the world’s second-largest retailer, featured a hijab-wearing Muslim model in its recycling campaign.
It’s not only profitable for major brands to tap into the Muslim market. Muslims want to see themselves in major advertisements and billboards.
Muslims react positively when they see major ads acknowledging their community’s identity and needs, according to a research report by Ogilvy Noor, a division of Ogilvy & Mather that specializes in engaging with Muslim audiences. Over 90 percent of Muslims said their religion affects their consumption habits and that they feel “shortchanged by the quality of marketing and products aimed at them in comparison with other consumer groups.”
Studies have shown that millennial consumers choose brands that feel authentic to them. The Muslim consumer is no different. Showcasing a hijab-wearing model but reprimanding her and other minorities for freely expressing thoughts is not how any brand is going to “champion diversity,” as L’Oreal once claimed.
Bakkar agrees. “Too often Muslim women are just used as an aesthetic,” she wrote in an email to HuffPost. “When casting for ‘diversity’ you are looking for more than just someone to sit pretty.”