Macy’s Empowers Muslim Women with First U.S. Department Store Hijab
by Ada Mullol, Andrea Scott, Colin Stoecker and Taylor Vollman
Maryam K., a Muslim American with Pakistani roots, works in Washington, D.C., as an information technology analyst at the Federal Reserve.
As a teen, the now 41-year-old had worked in Macy’s department store children’s section, and remembers when all clothes on sale there “were really tight and very fitted.”
Now that she is a mother, she has a hard time when shopping finding appropriate clothing for her children, and for herself.
“I would really love to see just modest clothing, not only for older women but for girls,” she said.
A new fashion line by Macy’s is targeted for women like Maryam. Macy’s made news in February when it announced that it launched online a new collection of modest clothes for Muslim women, including a hijab head covering. Macy’s is the first major U.S. department store to sell a hijab.
Catering to a Muslim market is something that other U.S. stores are starting to have in their purview. As the Muslim population in the United States grows, more women are feeling confident and proud of their religion, and seeing hijabs in public is more commonplace.
But wearing a hijab in public is still difficult for many Muslim women. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights project in 2008 found that “Muslim women who wear headscarves are more likely than those who do not to face discrimination,” with 69 percent of women who wore a hijab reporting at least one incident.
And this type of discrimination still persists. Just last month a Pennsylvania high school basketball player was forced to sit out of a playoff game after her coach forgot to fill out exemption paperwork to allow her to wear a hijab during the game.
So a major store like Macy’s choosing to sell a hijab does make a cultural statement.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Maryam said about Macy’s new collection. “I feel like they should market to us a little more because we’re from here.”
But for Macy’s and other stores to follow, it’s also a smart business decision. The Muslim population in the United States has been growing, and will continue to do so, according to 2017 data by the Pew Research Center.
It’s an untapped business market by U.S. brands — and it’s a marketplace that will continue to expand.
Fashion as a face of society
Photo Credit: Verona Collection
There are several reasons why Muslim women wear hijabs, and it’s not just always about religious beliefs.
Some women say it defines their identity, while for others it is what they have been used to. Others like the fact that it emphasizes their Islamic faith.
Maryam said she decided to start wearing the hijab when she was an expectant mother, because she wanted to be a good role model, also adding that the hijab gives her “self-confidence.”
“I do know that people judge you on hijab. A lot of people say, ‘Where are you from?’” she said. “It’s just the idea that Muslim people are not from here.
I like to actually answer that. Whenever people ask me, I say, ‘I’m from here,’ because people need to get the idea that America is not just for black and white people, it’s for everybody, so I like that.”
Not every American Muslim chooses to wear a hijab. Forty-two percent of American Muslim women never wear one, according to Pew.
But for those who do — about 38 percent of Muslim American women always wear a hijab in public, Pew says — American brands are starting to cater to them.
Macy’s spokeswoman Silvia Osante said, “At Macy’s, we are always looking for opportunities to better serve our customer, and Verona Collection offers fresh and affordable options for women looking for fashionable modest clothing options.”
In addition to the hijab, Macy’s new Verona Collection touts modest items such as dresses and cardigans. It was a collection founded by Lisa Vogl, a graduate of The Workshop at Macy’s, a development program focused on minority and women-owned businesses, as she saw an industry need after converting to Islam.
“Verona Collection is more than a clothing brand,” Vogl said in Macy’s news release. “It’s a platform for a community of women to express their personal identity and embrace fashion that makes them feel confident on the inside and outside.”
This trend toward embracing the tastes of Muslim women in the U.S. began two years ago when Indonesian and Muslim designer Anniesa Hasibaun made history at New York’s famed fashion week by featuring hijabs in every runway look.
The finale ended with standing ovation.
U.S. clothing brand Haute Hijab Chief Executive Officer Melanie Elturk wrote on Instagram at the time: “I believe fashion is one of the outlets in which we can start that cultural shift in today’s society to normalize hijab in America so as to break down stereotypes and demystify misconceptions.”
A growing market
Some U.S. stores have already started to catch on to the growing Muslim market.
Last year, Nike made waves when it released its first performance hijab for Muslim athletes in December.
In producing the sports hijab, Nike said it aims to inspire women and girls “who still face barriers and access to sport.”
Marwa Abdelbaki, a 34-year-old Egyptian who works as a language teacher at the State Department and has been living in the U.S. since 2007, is especially happy about Nike’s hijab.
“Because, of course, we run and exercise too,” she said. “So running with good material for exercising is a lot easier for me than running with this scarf!”
In 2017 there were 3.45 million Muslims in the United States. That number is way up from 2011, when there were 2.75 million U.S. Muslims, and in 2007, where there were 2.35 million, according to Pew.
Though Muslims may not have as high a population as U.S. Jews, or Christians, Pew says its projections “suggest the Muslim population will grow much faster than the country’s Jewish population.”
And retailers are starting to react, targeting Muslim women living in the United States.
Jaehee Jung, a professor at the University of Delaware teaching the social and psychological aspects of clothing and brand research, said, “They are really asserting Muslim women to have an option for buying a hijab from them, because every market is important, every customer is important.”
Muslim women, among women of every religion, want to express themselves in a way that is trendy, according to Jung, adding items are made for the mainstream or the majority. A department store adding a hijab to its merchandise indicates a cultural change, as she adds, “it’s almost becoming a mainstream item.”
As the worldwide Muslim population continues to grow, there also is a market for U.S. stores overseas.
Brands including Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY and Oscar de la Renta have launched collections typically sold overseas for Ramadan. And Italian luxury designer Dolce & Gabbana in 2016 launched a collection of bedazzled hijabs and abayas — a long cloak or robe worn over the clothes — in a line targeting Muslim women shoppers in the Middle East.
Worldwide in 2016 shoppers spent $254 billion on Muslim clothing, according to the Global Islamic Economy report. And those shopping dollars will only go up.
Pew projects that by 2050 nearly 30 percent of the worldwide population will be Muslim.
And in the U.S., the Muslim population will double today’s numbers.
Jung said, it’s a “great opportunity to really think about that women who have not been able to express themselves much, because of what that oppression and traditional perceptions of how Muslim women should look like, and that is changing. So, it’s time to consider some women, or people in general, who are marginalized to have that opportunity.”
Many U.S. Muslim women find U.S. stores selling hijabs as a big step forward in creating a more inclusive and integrative society in America.
But some are still hesitant.
Jehad Mohamed, a 25-year-old Egyptian journalist and human rights activist, is a bit more cautious.
“We need to see how this will reflect in the society, and how people will react to it,” Mohamed said.
Pew found in 2017 that 75 percent of American Muslims think there a lot of discrimination against Muslims in the U.S.
And 62 percent said no when asked if the American people see Islam as a part of mainstream society.
But moves by stores like Macy’s will help to continue to mainstream it.
Mohamed believes that Macy’s campaign is a step in the right direction given the political atmosphere in the United States, which “doesn’t help currently with more inclusion or more diversity or more acceptance.”
“More people will have the outlet to accommodate their needs,” she said. “If we’re going to talk about human rights, it’s the right of everyone to wear, to express themselves, to express their religions.”
There are still many stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding hijabs and Muslim women, and many complain that they have to face contemptuous comments from people who do not know their religion.
Marwa, who considers herself a feminist, recalls the time when a lady asked her, “Who forced you to wear the hijab?”
“So I said, ‘Actually nobody forced me to wear the hijab,’” she said. “ Women have more rights in Islam than what people expect.”
Marwa also recalled the time when a man asked her if she worked.
She said, “‘Yeah I work,’ and when he asked where I told him that I am working at the Department of Defense. He said ‘Oh, I didn’t know that you guys work.’ I hate that.”
The new campaigns by retailers to make these clothes are helping bolster their identity as Muslim women with equal dignity and rights, and educate society in multiculturalism.
And it’s giving American Muslim women shopping options — at home.
Until now, most women had to wait until they traveled overseas to buy fashionable “modest” clothes for a reasonable price, or they bought them online through sites such as Amazon.
Marwa stresses that the stores where she actually can find abayas in the U.S. are very expensive, where they can cost thousands of dollars.
She hopes and expects that with these new campaigns “it’s gonna be a little bit cheaper here, so we can afford it instead of getting it from Egypt.”
Maha El Bardicy said that when buying clothes online she often had to return them because they were never the right size. But now she’s grateful there will be stores to actually try clothes on in, and make returns, a move that helps her feel more a part of mainstream U.S. society.
“It’s perfect. I’m really happy about that,” she said.
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