4 questions to ask before you cast a Muslim woman in your advertising

National Inclusion Week has placed building diverse cultures and moving beyond outdated stereotypes in the spotlight.

In the past few years, diversity and inclusion have increasingly become buzzwords in agency board rooms, conference panels and the media. Headlines about the "Muslim pound" continue and we have slowly seen brands create more touchpoints for Muslim audiences.

Yet, as community and consumerism intersect, the fact remains that Muslim audiences largely continue to be uncatered for by mainstream media platforms. It's a state of play that means there is no playbook for brands to go by.

When there is no real blueprint of how to speak authentically to an audience, there's lots of room for error. At Amaliah, we have spent the past 12 months working with brands and agencies to help them understand how to communicate better with Muslim audiences.

Here are the four key questions to ask yourself before you start. 

1 Do you understand the context?

Muslims are by and large painted as a monolithic group and there's very little understanding of the nuances and varied practices. The importance of understanding the context and diversity of practices among Muslims is best illustrated through the Mac campaign seen during this year's Ramadan, one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar.

That month saw brands such as Aldo, DKNY and The Body Shop engage with Muslim audiences through online and in-store campaigns. Mac released a Facebook ad titled "Get ready for suhoor" (suhoor being the meal before starting your fast that is at the crack of dawn, at about 2am in the UK). Within hours, the post went viral, with UK Muslim social media users mocking it for not understanding Ramadan or the sanctity of the month. Many speculated that perhaps Mac had mixed up suhoor with iftaar, the latter meaning when you break your fast and is often a social occasion.

In fact, it turned out Mac had got the wording right. The brand was actually trying to appeal to the Middle Eastern market, where lavish suhoor parties are common and where women would often be wearing make-up – a stark contrast to how suhoor is observed in the UK.

2 What is your purpose?

When Muslim women are cast in advertising, it is important to note that you do not always need to confront that fact. The presence of a Muslim woman in media and advertising does not have to come with her breaking a stereotype or some kind of shock factor.

Advertisers don't feel as though they have to explore the identity of a white woman in an ad or, worse, have her explain it. Yet when a Muslim woman is cast, she is reinforced as "the other" through the messaging.

For Muslim Women’s Day earlier this year, Refinery29 decided to publish an interview with a Muslim porn star – a prime example of a Muslim woman being used to "break a stereotype" and offer clickbait content.

Recently at Amaliah, we were tasked by an agency to screen an ad, in which Muslim women were swearing, with the aim of subverting a "submissive" stereotype. These narratives do very little to engage Muslim audiences on a positive level and instead contribute to the slight obsession of trying to "humanise" Muslims.

When L'Oréal recruited Muslim beauty influencer Amena Khan, the brand felt the need to have her explain that Muslim women wash and look after their hair even if they wear a hijab. It is very important to question if this messaging is for Muslims or non-Muslims. While your ad and content are available to everyone, there is a balance to strike.

An interesting example is Nike's "What will they say about you?" campaign. It cleverly struck a balance between confronting a taboo within the cultures of these women and containing universal themes such as pushing on through and being unapologetic.

3 Does your representation follow through?

It is easy to represent minorities in a two-second window, but is there any follow-through? When Tesco's Christmas campaign, by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, featured 14 families, including a Muslim one, it was clear that the supermarket was playing the diversity card.

The tagline accompanying the spot was: "However you do Christmas, we’ve got a turkey for you." It later transpired that Tesco wasn't actually supplying halal turkeys. While there were attempts to include Muslims in the ad, there was no follow-through to ensure that this was reflected in the consumer experience.

It's a similar debate with magazines putting Muslim women wearing hijabs on the cover. Is the content also inclusive or is she simply there as flavour of the month?

4 Is there ownership in any form by those you seek to represent?

Rihanna’s Fenty campaign has less to do with an extensive range of shades and more to do with her being a black woman. When Fenty rolled out its 40 foundation shades, other brands tried to up their game. Others such as CoverGirl pointed out that it already had an extensive range of shades. More recently, CoverGirl released a video highlighting the 1000 women who had inspired its range. The spot, at 13 minutes and 43 seconds long, lists the names of those women for 12 minutes and 43 seconds.

"Covergirl are clearly annoyed that their history and range of foundations have been overlooked in the face of Rihanna’s Fenty," Olivia Crooks, media account manager at Vice Media, said. Indeed, Ukonwa Ojo, senior vice-president of CoverGirl, told Ad Age that it wasn’t fair that CoverGirl didn't receive the same praise as Fenty. "We've always had foundations that matched 99% of skin tones," Ojo said. "It's always been in the DNA of CoverGirl and we've formulated for that. We weren't as overt in talking about that as we should have been."

But did the praise that Fenty – and, in turn, Rihanna – received really just stem from what Ojo is putting down to better marketing? There is no doubt that Rihanna's presence in music and runways contributed to the discussion. But it can also be argued that, as a black woman who owned the brand, Rihanna had more authenticity in her messaging. In the same way that Black Panther was not just about its black leads but also that the director, Ryan Coogler, is African American, Fenty is a triumph of people of colour calling the shots. 

It's easy to detect when something is a performative act of diversity imposed on the consumer or when something is created in collaboration and truly for the consumer. Just casting Muslims – whether in ads or on magazine covers – will never lead to real inclusivity. All of the aforementioned issues could in part be solved by ensuring agencies and advertisers are made up of and working with those they seek to engage with and represent.

Nafisa Bakkar is the chief executive and co-founder of Amaliah, a platform that aims to fundamentally change the way Muslim women are represented in the media

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