Editor’s Note: Written by Zara Aboubakar. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Youtuber and social media influencer Amena Khan recently made history as the first hijab-wearing model to partake in a L’Oreal hair care campaign. Witnessing Khan become a brand ambassador and being featured in the hair care advertisement of a global cosmetics giant was a moment of pride celebrated worldwide. It was a step forward in redefining beauty standards to include modesty and the hijab and was also recognized as a huge accomplishment in breaking down the pre-existing barriers between Muslim/BAEM groups (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities) and society.
Consequently, it came as a great shock when Khan announced that she would be stepping down shortly after the campaign was released. This announcement was preceded by significant backlash and criticism that she received for tweets she had made in 2014 regarding the Israeli state, which have since been removed from her account. The tweets were deemed by some to be anti-Semitic and when asked to comment, L’Oreal told The Jerusalem Post, “L’Oreal Paris is committed to tolerance and respect toward all people. We agree with her decision to step down from the campaign.”
Dina Tokio, a fellow online influencer, responded to Khan’s announcement by saying “I don’t think you should step down! You can’t have an opinion now?? Those tweets or opinions did not make you anti-Semitic whatsoever. You are a well-articulated woman and anyone with sense can see that. It’s funny, I wonder if those tweets were the opposite opinion would you have been targeted like this?”
Khan’s decision raises countless questions. Was the backlash she received a continuum of anti-Islamic and racist sentiment that makes it difficult for Muslims to voice their opinion? For years we have seen Muslim women placed on the outskirts of public conversation despite themselves being the topic of debate. Now we see a number of big brands trying to be inclusive and opening doors for our participation, but at what cost?
L’Oreal recently modified their well-known “Because you’re worth it” slogan to “Because we’re all worth it,” as an indicator of their commitment to inclusivity. However, it seems it and other brands are happy to promote and benefit from minorities but refuse to acknowledge our voices. There is a superficial acceptance in an attempt to diversify that coincides with a rejection of the narratives and experiences of minorities, which is the essence of diversity.
Khan was not L’Oreal’s first blunder. In September 2017, transgender model Munroe Bergdorf was pulled out of a L’Oreal campaign for tweets written surrounding race and power. These tweets were also attacked for being problematic and resulted in Bergdorf being “anti-White.” “I strongly believe this instance speaks volumes about the true motives of brands and their campaigns,” Bergdorf stated in a response. “You can’t just use the images of people of color to profit an untapped demographic; you need to actually support the people you are representing.
While Bergdorf’s example illustrates the issues faced by minorities as a whole, Khan’s case brings to light a double standard specific to Muslim women. This month, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of Muslim Girl, felt compelled to reject Revlon’s Changemaker award due to the company’s association with Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who has firmly expressed pro-IDF (Israel Defense Forces) views (insinuating an anti-Palestinian stance).
That a Muslim woman like Khan must step down for her anti-Israel views and is unfairly labeled as an “anti-Semite” while Gadot remains unquestioned for her anti-Palestinian views-compelling yet another Muslim to have to step down in protest-poses a sinister question. Why do brands willfully disassociate from minorities while ignoring the blunders of someone like Gadot?
Discussions surrounding the lives of Muslim women are too often led by those who lack insight and understanding, and it seems like for every one step forward society takes two steps back. As a result, Amena Khan’s disappearance from the L’Oreal campaign is met with a heavy sense of disappointment. If there is one takeaway, it is this: Although recent times have seen progress in diversity, the fight to be truly heard remains an uphill battle.