'Unapologetically Muslim': study investigates trends amongst Muslim women in US, UK, and Indonesia

A new research study shows the increasing influence of millennial Muslim women and how brands can more genuinely market to them / Anisa Stoffel, Amena Elley, and Antar Hanif

A study done on the rising demographic and influence of millennial Muslim women shows signs of opportunity for a market reportedly poised to be worth $170bn in America alone.

The study, conducted by Nayantara Dutta, a trends researcher at J. Walter Thompson’s Innovation Group, focused on the increasing influence young adult women are having in the group. The study played as a compare and contrast between the Muslim communities in Indonesia, where the largest population of Muslims in the world resides, and the UK and US, which both have a significant population of immigrants representing the Islamic faith.

“Marketers have simplified Muslim narratives,” Dutta said, “which are vastly different due to their immigration stories, and interpretations of Islam.” Inspired by Shelina Janmohamed, who wrote the book “Generation M,” she created this trends report “to represent the vast diaspora of Muslim identities and the complexity within this global culture.”

In a conversation with Janmohamed had with The Drum last year, she said: “Generation M is a particular segment within the wider global Muslim population. One key defining characteristic is that they believe faith and modernity go hand in hand.”

Within that population, Dutta honed in on millennial Muslim women, who have been pushing back on incisive stereotypes and Islamophobia that still cause tensions between them and outside groups. This, in turn, has given marketers pause, said Benish Shah, formerly director of product marketing at Refinery29.

She told Dutta: “The media knows that they’re supposed to somehow talk to Muslim women, they just don’t know how to," adding, “We are undergoing a whitewashing of the Muslim experience. Let Muslim people tell their own stories and own their narrative instead of asking them to represent your concepts.”

Even further, said Alia Khan, the founder and chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council, halal—the lifestyle that binds those in the community together—isn’t to be looked at as just a product feature or requirement, but as integral to the lives of millions in the community.

“What they’re looking for is not the same as your mainstream market,” she said. “We are seeing more of a focus on quality, ethics, and sustainability, which are important parts of the halal lifestyle that need to be conveyed into the product and good starting points for anyone in the market.”

Muslim women especially have become exhausted with the burden of relaying the Muslim experience, a layered and varied one, to the rest of the general population. Layla Shaikley, co-founder of Mipsterz, an international community of “Hipster Muslims,” told Dutta she is “sick of telling 'my story’ as a Muslim woman: it has become a defensive correction of popularly perpetuated myths related to violence and oppression rather than my own personal narrative. My network of Muslims is high-powered, educated, game changing, and driven, a living refutation of the media’s perpetuated violent image.”

However, the Muslim market, Dutta notes, is one of the few that is value-driven—not just based on affinity—due to a shared halal lifestyle. Muslim women, specifically, Dutta said, “are willing do the extra work, ensuring that brands respect their lifestyle choices and decisions at every step.” She referenced the Nike Pro Hijab, which had divided audiences—some Muslim women were happy to have representation through the sports brands products, but others, wary of its reported past usage of labor in sweatshops, continue to be skeptical of its efforts.

This, as well as the tightly-connected network, has allowed the population to be “constituted as a global market,” said Shahed Amanullah, founder of Affinis Labs, a Muslim tech incubator. "You can market to them collectively, which that means that the market size has increased a hundredfold, and they want their identity reflected in the goods and services sold to them.”

Dutta’s study brings up a few ways for brands to reach the market in meaningful ways, based off of what’s happening in the larger reaches of society. Muslim women have been making their presence felt on a global stage, like model Halima Aden on the runway at 2016’s New York Fashion Week for Kanye West’s fashion line, Ibtihaj Muhammad at the most recent Summer Olympics (and having a Barbie doll made in her image), and Linda Sarsour, one of the main organizers for the Women’s March.

“Marketers are starting to give Muslim women a platform,” Dutta said, “but it’s not enough to include Muslim narratives—they are more interested in who really benefits from this representation.”

A thin line has developed from this, she said, between sentiment amongst the community that brands had been either genuinely supporting their identity, or solely making a profit off of the group's own inherent diversity. “Brands can lose their trust,” Dutta added, “if they distribute media that includes them but is not made by them.”

The research Dutta pulled together in her report addresses the openness for Muslim women from these different regions to be catered to by brands, “on the condition that they respect their culture and don’t require them to compromise their religious values in consumption.”

Dutta adds further: “I hope the report will help readers to better understand their narratives and show marketers how they can support them. Millennial Muslim women are set to disrupt, and they’re just getting started.”

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