Digging through my mother’s archives, I found a photo of three Black Muslim women at a fashion show in the early 1980s. The women in the photo look fabulous. In the middle stands my aunty, Kareemah Abdul-Kareem, one of the event’s organizers. On her left is a sister (in faith), Fatimah Al-Islam, wearing a tent-style dress: its black neck, chest, and shoulders give way to a black-and-white floral design on its sleeves and lower half. This woman wears a matching khimar (headscarf), the floral print strategically placed, the scarf pinned to the back with the ends hanging past her shoulders. On Kareemah’s other side is another sister adorned in a three-piece fuchsia, black, and white striped suit wearing a black turban tied over a black scarf that wraps around her ears and neck. Kareemah wears a silky drawstring plum tunic under a long silky beige vest. Her plum scarf is tied to the side, the ends fanning out like a flower over her left ear, her right hoop earring exposed. Kareemah also wears an oversized index card on her vest’s lapel that carries a description of the outfit and its designer’s name.
Aunty Kareemah and friends, early 1980s. Courtesy of umisarchive.com
This photograph tells an important story about Muslim fashion history in the United States, one that connects to contemporary Muslim fashion in three key ways. First, it contradicts a tired mainstream narrative that being fashionable is something new among Muslim women in this country. Plenty in this photo, style-wise, could be drawn straight from a news feature about current Muslim “fashionistas,” evidence that today’s Muslim modest fashion—like all fashion—is indebted to the styles of yesteryear. Second, differences in how each Muslim woman in the photo is dressed challenge mainstream tendencies to regard the hijab as monolithic and uniform. Muslim women cover their bodies and heads in myriad ways, but it is often presumed that the hijab appears only as a burqa or as a scarf wrapped in a manner associated with the Middle East. Lastly, the photo challenges stereotypes outside and within the Muslim community. Outside Muslim communities, it refutes mainstream demonization of Muslims in the United States as “foreign” and threatening; within Muslim communities, it questions hierarchies of racial and ethnic privilege within the US Muslim population.
The author (in white) with her mother (in pink) in the 1980s at India House, a restaurant that was the site of many celebrations for Black Muslims in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Majida Abdul-Karim
The racialization of Muslims in the United States and elsewhere is a defining characteristic of the contemporary moment. Along with many others, I use the term anti-Muslim racism to describe forms of discrimination that specifically target Muslims because of their religion in racial ways. Such discrimination often focuses on what Muslims “look” like as part of a wider depiction of their “culture” as alien and threatening to the national and sometimes Western, or modern, culture. One consequence of such racism is the erasure of Black Muslim communities from mainstream narrations of the US Muslim experience. Black Muslim communities are a central component of the history of Islam in the United States, and their existence contradicts the positioning of Muslims as an immigrant threat. My mother’s archived photo recovers a slice of that missing story, demonstrating the prominence of Black Muslims within the Muslim US American population and as pioneers of US Muslim fashion.