Nov. 8, 2022

Class of 2022: Introducing the world to Muslim fashion

Arts student Asma Bernier’s research helps her highlight and share her identity
UCalgary student Asma Bernier
UCalgary student Asma Bernier researched hijabi influencers and modest fashion in a research methods class. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When a woman walks down the street in a hijab, the first thing often noticed is the veil or a head scarf, symbols of religion that typically identify a person as Muslim.

A problem arises when that is all people see. Asma Bernier discovered that this visual representation of her religion is typically the only identifier of the person beneath the veil. “Once you walk in the room,” explains the Communications and Media student in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary, “you are seen as a veiled Muslim, nothing more, and nothing less.”

Combined with her first-hand experiences growing up in Calgary as a veiled Muslim woman of both Middle Eastern and European heritage, Bernier struggled to find a place where she felt she fully belonged. And while she’s the first to say that she is a proud hijabi Muslim woman, Bernier is also quick to remind that there is more to her identity: she is an emerging scholar, a daughter, sister, and friend to many.

Bernier, who receives her BA in the November convocation ceremonies, says this realization drew her to research hijabi influencers and modest fashion in a research methods class, which became her work for her undergraduate honours research. Following a co-op internship and the encouragement and support of her professors, she’s taken her work to the next phase of her academic career as, without skipping a beat, she embarks on her master’s degree program at UCalgary.

Social media influencers as identity icons

Bernier says her research emerged from her own use of social media, her fashion and veiling practices and from people she follows on Instagram and TikTok who share her interest in identity politics and the politics of representation.

Focusing on social media made sense, as Bernier’s co-op placement was at UCalgary in the Department of Communication, Media and Film (CMF). As the public engagement and curriculum research assistant, she was responsible for maintaining the website and social media accounts while also working on special projects such as curriculum research and media technology research. She’s most proud of her launch of the CMF Instagram account and of the creation of the CMF Student Series which showcased undergraduate and graduate students in the various CMF programs, leading to increased engagement. She says she was able to apply academic knowledge to a professional setting.

“Going into my research, I wondered how hijabi influencers engage in self-representation while focusing on fashion,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about why they often dress in bold ways; how do they define Islamic modesty and what does it say about our identities?”

Founders of Al-Muselimah, from left: Doha Badreddin, Sumaya Bernier, Yasmine Swedan, and Asma Bernier.

Founders of Al-Muselimah, from left: Doha Badreddin, Sumaya Bernier, Yasmine Swedan, and Asma Bernier.

Illustration by Yasmine Swedan

After studying the profiles and posts of women in Australia, Canada, the United States, and Norway, she realized the modest fashion movement is a global one. With Muslim influencers around the world engaging in similar self-expressive practices, Bernier says she drew from her own experiences, as well as communication theories such as post-colonial feminism, creative labour, and cultural translation.

“Through these theories,” she says, “I was able to make sense of what I was analyzing in the images and videos derived from hijabi influencers. I closely analyzed clothing, texture, hijab, background, pose, facial expression, makeup, and the captions. I made sense of what each visual artifact was communicating and its relation to Islamic modesty.”

Graduate work takes shape

Bernier’s goal is to continue to deepen her research, studying fashion, politics, and activism, seeking to understand how fashion can be used as a tool for activist practices while keeping the focus on Muslim women.

She frequently talked to Muslim women about her project, and all agreed on one specific thing: the timeliness of her research. She has found that there is a modest fashion movement emerging through hijabi influencers and hijabi women in everyday life, and by non-Muslims within the high-fashion industry.

“I’ve found that there is this belief that Muslim women can't follow trends or explore fashion because they have to dress more conservatively,” she says. “There is room for creativity in fashion and these women can also be part of subcultures. Styles range from Y2K to punk and vintage to high fashion.

“Muslim women follow modesty, but they do not find that it limits their identities,” she continues, adding, “It adds to their identity, and they engage in unique and adventurous ways of dressing. Through creative dressing, they break that identifier of being a veiled woman and are seen as a veiled woman who is creative, brave, and much more.”

Taking research to the community

Discussing her work and recognizing a need to develop a creative space for Muslim women to meet and interact, Bernier, working with three friends, developed and launched a non-profit organization called Al-Muselimah (a play on the term Al-Muslimah, which means female Muslim, and the word muse). “We chose this to portray our mission as an organization: a space for creative Muslim women,” she explains. “We call our members and all who engage with us our muses.”

Just over a month ago the women launched Al-Muselimah, and in late October they held an event that sold out quickly and drew 40 women together. The reaction from the community has been both positive and full of praise for establishing a space just for Muslim women. The plan is to host more events for women to connect with each other, showcase their creativity and artwork, and be part of an accepting community.

“Community building is something we value.”

Entrepreneurial UCalgary grads make an impact in health care, culture, law, business, the environment, and more. Read more stories about Class of 2022 students.

A note for soon-to-be UCalgary Alumni! As you prepare to transition from student life, we encourage you to check out our Life Kit for Recent Grads – custom built to inform you about the programs, benefits and services available to you as a member of the UCalgary alumni community.

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