Muslim lingerie models challenge Islam's stance on modesty

12 November 2017 - 00:00 By Adam Levin
Bella Hadid was born to a Dutch mother and an Palestinian-American dad.
Bella Hadid was born to a Dutch mother and an Palestinian-American dad.
Image: Gallo/Getty

US model Gigi Hadid has risen rapidly to superstardom. By 2015, she had already appeared on the covers of Vogue (US, Paris, Japan, Australia, China, Italy, Germany and Brazil); as well as Numero, Allure, W Magazine, Elle (Canada) Dazed and Harper's Bazaar.

She had also walked for top designers Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Miu-Miu, Balmain, Versace and Diane von Furstenberg and been appointed brand ambassador for Reebok.

More significantly, however, Gigi had also been appointed brand ambassador for Tommy Hilfiger, best known for his underwear collections, had graced the Pirelli calendar and walked twice in the Victoria's Secret lingerie show.

The scandal lay in the fact that, although Gigi was born in Los Angeles, her mother is a Dutch ex-model and her father is a Palestinian-American.

Gigi, along with her equally famous sister Bella, is Muslim — and her high-profile flaunting of her body is in direct contravention of Islam.

Gigi, along with her equally famous sister Bella, is Muslim — and her high-profile flaunting of her body is in direct contravention of Islam

According to the Holy Quran, Islam strongly emphasises the concept of decency and modesty in the interaction between members of the opposite sex. Dress code is part of that overall teaching.

What's interesting in the original text is how patriarchy as well as religion appears as an equally beneficial institution in the upholding of this law.

In a chapter known as "The Light", Allah commands the Prophet Mohammed as follows: "Say to the believing men that they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts by being chaste."

This commands Muslim men not to look lustfully at women (other than their wives). In order to prevent any possibility of temptation, they are required to look downwards. This is known as the hijab of the eyes.

After this comes the dress code for women. "... and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur (or head-scarf) over their bosoms."


Cast one's gaze back over the runways for a couple of decades and it's apparent just how expedient the fashion industry has been in its quest for the acceptable exotic.

In an article in the Times of London, Hermione Hoby tells the story of Wolfgang Schwarz, who, soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain, opened offices in Vienna, primarily because the country bordered on seven Eastern European countries, where he predicted the next wave of supermodels would originate.

He was soon proved right, and within a year had opened satellite offices in Warsaw, Tallinn and Bucharest, scouting for 15-year-old girls who he would quickly school in the ways of Western hairstyling and then send off to launch careers in the world's fashion capitals.

Very soon, the runways were full of teenagers with unpronounceable names who had previously never left their native Prague or Bratislava.

But fashion is a fickle animal and it was barely two decades before the Eastern European "look" had become as banal as that of the fresh-faced Germans and Scandinavians who preceded it. Again Schwarz was ahead of the curve and turned his attention to other girls in another region, previously out of bounds to the West.

Sophie Galal was Saudi Arabian by birth but lived in the West and Schwarz wasted no time in employing her as a scout. Galal had never forgotten her Arab roots and suggested to her boss that there was sure to exist in North Africa and the Middle East an ample supply of girls yet untapped by any agency - and so Galal was dispatched on a fact-finding mission.

"It varied from country to country," she recalled. "In Tunisia, it's acceptable to be a model, but in Saudi, one has to be discreet. I tell people I'm looking for a Saudi girl who wants to be a model and the word spreads from mouth to mouth."

Hanaa ben Abdesslem graces a cover.
Hanaa ben Abdesslem graces a cover.
Image: Gallo/Getty

Don't forget, she cautions, that in the Middle East, "girls wear a lot of expensive clothes under their veils".

A couple of years later, there was talk at the massive IMG Models of a full-scale scouting operation across North Africa and the Middle East, but it was Galal who spotted the It girl on a wall of a Lebanese modelling agency.

Her name was Hanaa ben Abdesslem and it took two months to find her, now back in her native Tunisia and studying engineering. Ten minutes into her first conversation with Galal she told her the only thing she'd ever wanted to be was a model.

Soon Carine Roitfeld, editor of French Vogue, clapped eyes on Ben Abdesslem and put her on her cover twice. Her meteoric rise took her to the catwalks of Gaultier, Chanel and Anna Sui and before the lenses of celebrated photographers Mario Testino and Terry Richardson.

Ben Abdesslem's mother worried that she may not succeed in a dream for which there was no precedent, but her father declared that she was free to do as she chose. Her career rocketed.

There are many other Muslim models who have achieved celebrity status. Rima Fakih, a Lebanese-born American, won Miss USA in 2010; and Alisar Ailabouni, an Austrian-born Syrian, won Germany's Next Top Model the same year; it was said that their winning was exotically motivated.

Let us not forget David Bowie's widow, Somali-born Iman, discovered in 1975 in Egypt by photographer Peter Beard and who went on to have a stellar career.


Although Bella Hadid says of her father, "He was always religious and he prayed with us and I am proud to be a Muslim," there has been surprisingly little backlash against the sisters' rise and rise in the modelling world.

And although one can ascribe much of their astounding success to their undeniable beauty, there are a couple of other factors to consider: because they are mixed race, they are both just exotic enough not to be threatening.

More to the point, their childhood was pretty much as privileged as the Kardashians', and as we all know, rich, beautiful young women can get away with just about anything.