Yunalis Mat Zara’ai, widely known as Yuna, is a Malaysian born pop singer whose style and success is changing the way people view Muslim women. The New York Times recently published an article dubbing Yuna as the “Poster Girl for Young Hijabsters,” using hijabster as a spin off of the popular American term hipster. Hijabsters represent a new trend found among younger generations in predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia. This new fad offers a way for people to retain their Muslim identity while also keeping up with the latest fashion and modern, progressive attitudes. Yuna challenges many stereotypical assumptions surrounding Islam and is idolized by many because of her resistance to conform to conservative Islam views as well as to Western expectations.
How does she accomplish this?
Characterized by both a hijab and skinny jeans, Yuna prides herself on finding a balance between her devotion to Islam as well as to her personal style. She does so by her choice to wear red lipstick and trendy outfits with a hijab. The hijab itself is a current developing fashion trend in more progressive Muslim countries. The hijab signifies both reverence to the religion but also serves as a symbol of progressive Islamic feminism. Sociologist Jaime Kucinskas demonstrates in her research on Islam and gender egalitarianism how a reaffirmation of Muslim identity can coincide with progressive gender attitudes, especially among female youths in countries like Egypt.
Jen’nan Ghazal Read, who studies identity negotiation among Muslim women states, “feminist notions of standpoint, subjectivity, and bodily practice…suggest that discursive regimes provide social actors with important symbolic resources for identity negotiation and for the legitimation of everyday social and bodily practices.” Yuna’s choice to be a worldwide pop star as well as a devout Muslim woman and to dress both parts represents her negotiation of identity and legitimation of public modern Islamic style. Despite now living in Los Angeles, Yuna chooses not to conform to Western expectations in the music industry and uses the hijab as a way to symbolize this dedication to her roots and Islamic faith. Because American pop stars generally market themselves in a provocative way, many female Muslim entertainers often face a tough choice to uncover their hair and stay in the industry or cover up and be phased out. In Yuna’s case, she sings and entertains like any other musician, yet she does so in a manner that remains respectful to her faith, her country, and herself. In doing so, as a self-identifying proud Muslim woman, Yuna then serves as the primary role model for younger generations, especially among Muslim girls.
Many feminists and scholars have long debated the place of the hijab, questioning whether this article functions as a source of oppression or empowerment. In Yuna’s case as well as many others, the hijab is no doubt deliberately utilized as a way to affirm and reinforce identity. In an interview with the New York Times, Yuna states that her choice to wear a hijab is a reflection of “[her] will to be a better Muslim.” Yuna’s popularity stems from this ability to confidently recreate her own cultural and religious boundaries.
While the hype around Yuna is exceptionally positive, this publicity can also be conceived as quite objectifying. In all of the articles I have read, Yuna is not being highlighted for her music but for her clothes. While her outfits are her trademark, the fetishizing of the hijab is taken to an extreme, which potentially results in a misappropriation of her cultural and religious identity. For instance, the article is in the International Arts section is titled, “A Malaysian Pop Star Clad in Skinny Jeans and a Hijab.” The article then begins with, “A few years ago, a young woman wearing a hijab..” In the title and this opening line, the article promotes not an aspiring artist but instead an artifact that entices fascination with its symbolic Otherness. Yuna’s success is undermined if it is only defined by her choice to wear a hijab. The fact is, Yuna has been a considerable force in contributing to a revolutionary phase among Muslim youths and as the Free Malaysia press puts it, a “feminist awakening.”