A few months ago, BuzzFeed featured a YouTube video of a young Muslim woman, Nye Armstrong, explaining a new way to tie a headscarf. The reason why this video attracted the attention of BuzzFeed (a site full of distracting and inane pop culture material) and later, Huffington Post was because Nye explains how to wear a hijab in the style of Princess Leia’s hair buns from the Star Wars films.
Nye uses a brown scarf and pins to create the look, and after the buns are complete she jokes around on camera by swinging her light saber back and forth and quoting lines from an episode of 30 Rock, which referenced Princess Leia. The title of the BuzzFeed article refers to Nye as an “awesome girl” and the title of Huffington Post article reads, “Princess Leia Hijab Tutorial Gives Traditional Garb a Quirky Spin.” Both of these articles indicate that Muslims are usually not this hip or into contemporary styles because the religion is more “traditional.” This is just one video within a larger community of young Muslim women on YouTube who are blending their Islamic faith with popular culture and contemporary styles.
If you ever want to learn to do something, most likely you can find a YouTube tutorial video on that topic: dancing, speaking a new language, playing an instrument, fixing a computer problem, etc. These same informational and tutorial videos exist within the Islamic community. You can watch videos on reading the Qur’an, hear sermons from popular preachers, learn Arabic, get advice from a scholar, and more. While YouTube features many videos about Islamic theology and scholarship, there is also a community of young women who post videos about lifestyle advice and daily activities, like how to wear hijab, recipes for holidays, and makeup tips.
While many of these videos are meant to be entertaining and frequently imitate popular video forms on YouTube, the videos still incorporate strong Islamic themes and sensibilities. If we take Nye’s Princess Leia Hijab tutorial for example, this video illustrates how Nye combines her belief in a pious way of dressing and acting, along with her love for Star Wars and her desire to associate herself with the character of Princess Leia. The space of YouTube allows for this hybridization of forms. Many young Muslims living in North America and Europe feel stuck within the assumed dichotomy of Islam versus Western culture. YouTube provides a third space in which these women can exist between these two established spaces, and this hybridization of styles creates new meanings and ways for the women to represent their identities.
Because of the popularity of YouTube celebrities like “JennaMarbles” or “MichellePhan,” many young women have attempted to recreate the styles of these videos, which feature lifestyle topics such as makeup tips, beauty products, fashion styles, dieting, recipes, and relationship advice. Basically, the videos have replaced women’s magazines. YouTube also pays individuals when their videos reach over a million views, so these videos provide a viable way not only to become famous but also to make a living. Because of the competition for viewers, the video-makers have to effectively market themselves, so they try to fit into larger trends on YouTube and they design thumbnails for their videos in order to get more clicks.
With the larger trends of lifestyle videos on YouTube in mind, several Muslim women have created channels, featuring similar lifestyle videos that incorporate an Islamic style and values. For example, a popular trend on YouTube is the Outfit of the Day (OOTD) video in which women discuss what they are wearing that day and from where the items were purchased. Several Muslim YouTubers (saimastyleslike, TheSewist, dinatokio) have posted similar videos, but they feature outfits that are modest (long skirt or pants covered by a tunic, long-sleeved shirt, and a headscarf), and the outfits are frequently being worn to go to religious celebrations. These videos demonstrate that Islam is essential to the lives of these women. They are focused on common lifestyle topics (fashion, makeup, relationships, nutrition), but they incorporate Islamic elements to distinguish them from the mainstream videos and to always keep Islamic values at the center of their lives. For example, the women discuss how to dress and act piously, apply simple and natural makeup, offer nutritional tips for fasting during Ramadan, and use Islamic phrases and prayers in their videos. In addition, not all the videos on these sites are about lifestyle topics. Several video-makers (Nye Armstrong and ChelseyHijabLove) are also converts to Islam and have filmed videos about their personal experiences as converts, as well as useful tips for new Muslims.
One of the most popular Muslim women on YouTube is Amena or “Amenakin,” a British woman who started her video channel four years ago with her first hijab tutorial. Amena founded a hijab fashion company, Pearl Daisy, and created her own style of a headscarf, called a hoojab; viewers can purchase a hoojab online and then watch one of Amena’s videos to learn how to wear it. Amena really started this movement of young Muslim women on YouTube, and several video-makers cite her videos as inspiration to create their own videos. Amena’s videos feature similar topics as the other lifestyle videos on YouTube, but she also incorporates Islamic themes, like about maintaining proper interactions with men, marriage issues, stereotypes about Islam, Islamic identity, and the reasons for wearing hijab. Also, the community that Amena helped to form online extends into the offline space, as some of her 100,000-plus subscribers have met Amena in person during her meet-ups. Amena also films many of these meet-ups so viewers can feel as if they are there in person. Amena’s videos provide a space for young female Muslims to feel connected to other women in this community, both online and offline.
These videos illustrate the way that Muslim women are taking popular styles of YouTube videos and creating videos that recreate these styles but by adding an Islamic style. This fusion of different styles can be seen in a popular video by Nye Armstrong entitled, “Husband Does My Makeup And Hijab,” which Nye films with her husband Elhassan (this video was posted on February 3, 2013 but has since been made private). This video is an example of a “tag” video on YouTube, in which several video-makers offer their own take on a particular theme or question. The “boyfriend/husband does my makeup” videos are some of the most popular tag videos on YouTube, in which the male partner applies makeup to the faces of the video-makers, usually in a garish fashion. While the original makeup videos tend to be more crass, irreverent and sexually charged, Nye’s video attempts to infuse her video with a sense of Islamic piety. In this video, Nye is visible on-screen, smiling and laughing, while her husband applies makeup from off-camera (he does not wish to appear in her videos). After the makeup is complete, he also puts a headscarf on Nye, which marks the video as distinctly Islamic.
While her husband is applying the makeup, the two of them discuss ideas of Islamic beauty and whether Muslim women should wear makeup. Even though the video is a fun exercise, they are reflecting on what they are doing and what this means to them as Muslims. The space of YouTube allows Nye to combine a trend of contemporary culture–makeup tag videos–with a particular Islamic style and message. The fluidity and elasticity of the YouTube space allow for women like Nye to try out these different trends and to see how they can be combined with Islam. In turn, a new experience of religion is able to emerge in this space. All of these women are redefining what it means to be a Muslim living in the contemporary world through this hybrid style, which is possible through the space of YouTube. This is an example of a “third space” because it exists in between the normal dichotomies of public vs. private, Islam vs. the West, traditional vs. modern, institution vs. individual. This space allows for these women to experiment and combine these different elements and create a new Islamic aesthetic style.
By Kristin Peterson