It started off as a joke, calling themselves Mipsterz, which is short for Muslim hipsters.
"It's almost like a very lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek kind of thing where we wanted a space to share ideas that in some way fuse cultures. It's like we're almost creating our own culture by being ourselves," says Abbas Rattani, a curator of the email listserv that calls itself Mipsterz. "The tag line I ended making up was, 'Wait a minute, people hate us because we're Muslim? I thought they hated us because we're hipsters.' It kind of encapsulates the vibe."
Late last month, Rattani and a group of Mipsterz released a video to the tune of the Jay-Z song "Somewhere in America" (Full disclosure: I am on the listserv, and I appear in the video.)
The video shows diverse Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, or head covering, and do so with individual style. The women are also seen doing quirky, random things like skateboarding, walking around a forest, and other hipster-esque escapades.
The video has sparked huge amounts of commentary.
In the first few hours after Sheikh and Bake Productions released the video, Twitter and other social media comments looked a little bit like this:
And then this:
The negative criticism fell broadly into three categories: First, there were those who felt the video inaccurately and wrongly portrayed "a fluffed up version of hijab." Second, critics broadly claimed the video "objectif[ied] the Muslim female form." Third were those who said they couldn't and didn't identify with the Muslim women in the video.
One of the video's producers, Sara Aghajanian, says the purpose of the video is to stress the diversity of Muslim women. The inspiration for the video came from a trip she made to Iran.
"My family is from Iran, and growing up I remember the many media images of Iran with women wrapped in veils and chadors. When the opportunity came for me to visit Iran myself a few years ago, I saw the diversity of color and design in women's fashion. If you look around New York City and other places, you see the same thing. So the project really made me excited because it shows the unique reality that these women embody," she says.
The participants in the video are a microcosm of the underrepresented world of powerful Muslim women. The video does not highlight their professional attributes — but that wasn't the goal. It was meant to show a group of Muslim youth in America — specifically, a generation that is intent on starting conversations instead of discouraging talk altogether.
The hijab is a physical symbol of God-consciousness for everyday life. The women in the video all wear hijab, but they embrace their own unique style. And the video was meant to spark an important conversation: Muslims are not monolithic.
We are not monolithic in what we wear or how we think — and that is part of what the video was trying to communicate. It wasn't meant to represent the entire diversity of Muslim women, or even the entire diversity of Muslim women in America. It simply shows one story that is happening in this country.
"I think the video has triggered a lot of great conversation," says Aghajanian. "With a project like this, interpretation is in the eyes of the beholder. Much of the criticism was directed at the male creators of the project, yet the video was created with the involvement and advice of many women, and there were many women, including myself, involved in making it happen."
Rattani, her co-producer, says, "I think one of the inspirations behind Mipsterz and even the video is that Muslim-Americans are being defined by their religion in two ways — one is negative, and one is a definition based on the reaction to news and media. ... We were just like, we're not really going to contribute to defining ourselves in reaction to somebody else's definition; we don't even really want to legitimize other people's definition."
Though this particular project went viral, this isn't the first time Mipsterz have worked together as a group.
In response to the anti-Islam ads posted in the New York City subway last year, Mipsterz got together and helped build The Quran Project, combating inaccurate representations of Islam by posting verses from the Quran in different locations around Washington, D.C. Most recently, some members have put together an Islamic matrimonial website called "Hipster Shaadi," which helps Muslims seek out a significant other based on shared beliefs and faith requirements for marriage.
As Muslims, we are taught that the communal effort to reach out to one another anywhere and everywhere defines who we are. We greet one another saying as-salaam alaikum — peace and blessings onto you always. And we do so, regardless of what you look like or what you choose to wear.
In the media, Muslims are far too often associated with violence. This video casts Muslims in a different light altogether, highlighting an identity that is grounded in asking tough questions and openly discussing our faith.
Somewhere in America, that's already happening.