A hijab brand, a nightclub and the new Muslimah

Last month, the Kuala Lumpur nightclub Zouk hosted an unusual event. It was the launch of a line of hijabs from a brand that has become a household name in Malaysia and beyond: Naelofar Hijab.

Naelofar Hijab is owned by Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor, who is widely admired as a style icon and savvy businesswoman. But the choice of Zouk – a venue known for hard partying and imbibing - to promote a head covering associated with observant Muslim women was too much for some.

After online complaints surfaced about the ungodly venue, a shariah lawyer mused that Neelofa could be charged with insulting Islam. The mufti of Kuala Lumpur wrote an open letter expressing concern about the “normalization” of the hijab, where if you wear one, anything goes. An upset fan posted a video of a pile of Naelofar hijabs – set on fire.

The story of the nightclub hijab launch is part of a wider generational phenomenon. Young Muslim women in Southeast Asia today are simultaneously more religious than their parents’ generation and more cosmopolitan as consumers. As JWT Intelligence’s Innovation Group documented in our recent report, “The New Muslimah,” these trends – more global, more Islamic – are playing out across consumer sectors from food to travel to entertainment to, yes, fashion.

Young Muslim women – like all young women – are defining their identities while living in a modern world, with the accompanying conflict, concession and adaptation. Neelofa was not the first to be caught up in this flux, and she won’t be the last.

A Generational Shift

In Malaysia and Indonesia, a range of forces have promoted the Islamization of private and public life since the early 1980s. The widespread adoption of the hijab – though in increasingly modern, sculpted forms - is just the most obvious public manifestation.

Neelofa, who has 5.4 million followers on Instagram, is a former actress and TV host who has built an empire in this booming new industry of modest fashion. Naelofar Hijab has customers in more than three dozen countries including, briefly, at a pop-up store in London’s trendy Chelsea. Last year, Forbes Asia included Neelofa in its “30-under-30” list under the e-commerce category.

The event at Zouk on February 26 was to launch her new Be Lofa line of turbans – in 45 colors from Dusty Aqua to Cuban Sand - and to celebrate her 29th birthday.

In the uproar that ensued, her company quickly issued an apology, published by news site BH Online. It noted that the event was held on a day when the nightclub was closed, a halal caterer was used and the bar was cordoned off. As the controversy picked up, Neelofa herself – initially defiant - backed down and apologized for “causing stress and negative sentiments on the selection of the venue.”

After understanding and reflecting on what has taken place after the NH event on the 26th Feb 2018, I would like to sincerely apologize for causing stress and negative sentiments on the selection of the venue at which the event took place. I would also like to thank you for all the support given by many who have understood this situation . We will put greater attention in the future to make sure we protect the image of the product. Moving forward, we will make sure that we continue to brand hijab to its true potential from here on. I take full responsibility of all decisions made and I can only learn from the mistakes. I am far from perfect and I respect your thoughts and feedbacks. I am truly, deeply sorry. Thank you. ❤️

A post shared by Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor (@neelofa) on

Of pork-free dim sum and halal speakeasies

For our report, “The New Muslimah,” we surveyed 1,000 Muslim women in Malaysia and Indonesia and found that young women – defined as aged 18 to 39 - are highly observant. Nearly all said they pray five times a day; 94 percent say Islam is “very important” to them. In fact, most young women regard themselves as more religiously observant or as religiously observant as their mothers were at their age.

They’re also highly-connected and outward-looking. 80% of young women reported spending more than four hours a day online. A third said they travel abroad at least once a year. (It’s worth noting that the budget airline Air Asia not only commissioned Neelofa to design functional, stretchy headscarves for its pilots, but also appointed her to its board as a non-executive independent director.)

Nine out of ten young women surveyed said there are more opportunities for young women today. Yet 70% said they hanker for more freedoms.

We tracked the emergence of consumer trends such as halal-certified sushi, pork-free dim sum and “wuduk-friendly” make-up, easily washed off for daily prayers. We found mocktail bars and halal speakeasies, where non-alcoholic drinks are served in wine and martini glasses.

The leader of a Kuala Lumpur alternative music band, The Venopian Solitude, told us how fans struggle to reconcile her music – gritty, percussive, urban – with how she looks - loose robes, loose hijab, no make-up. They expect her to look, she said, bemused, “like Bjork.”

Sold out

In this balancing of ambition, piety and consumer culture, the notion of a hijab launch in a nightclub is not really that far-fetched.

It’s unclear how much of a hit, if any, Neelofa will take in the long run. News outlets reported that she had lost 100,000 Instagram followers – just under 2% - after the incident. But in at least one quantifiable respect, she appears to have emerged unscathed.

A check on her e-commerce website found that 43 of the 45 colors in the new Be Lofa line have sold out.

Chen May Yee is APAC director for J. Walter Thompson Intelligence’s Innovation Group. A summary of “The New Muslimah: Southeast Asia Focus” is available here and the full report is available for purchase here.

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