Media   |   Research & Advisory

Muslim Youth Cultural Codes – black zebras with white stripes, or white zebras with black stripes?

Jonathan A. J. Wilson | June 16, 2011 | 0 Comments
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Gaining insight into stakeholder perceptions – concerning individual and group identities, are central components of any good marketing. Arguably, the youth market is tough: because how many brands can predict whether they’ll be the next cult, or cool thing – especially when tastes change so quickly? If we add into the mix the fact that Muslim youth are balancing adherence to their faith (which is taken from information largely based upon classical texts), with living in the here and now (meaning that some texts have to be brought up to speed with the world today) – then there are plenty of debates to be had.

Instead of being a scientific piece on Zebras, I really wanted zebras to provide the basis for several analogies. Often when we picture traditional Middle Eastern Muslim clothing: it’s white for males and black for females. However amongst the younger generation especially, those patterns are being broken up by additional displays of conspicuous consumption – the all-important accessorising and customising. These are like stripes on zebras, which help to camouflage and blend youth into their environments. Just like with ying and yang, the black and white balance each other.

However, an additional level of understanding worth considering is, are we looking at black stripes on a white body, or white stripes on a black body. Some would argue that it doesn’t matter and that either as a starting point is subject to the perspective of the observer. So by way of another analogy, do more Muslim youth perceive that they are accessorizing and customizing Muslim dress; or in fact the opposite – that they are Islamicising non-Muslim clothing?

For example, some more orthodox Islamic quarters see women wearing jeans as: a departure from Islamic convention; attempting to be Western (the inference being that Western is bad); and imitating men (“because men wear the pants in the house”). However, an alternative view would be that jeans are: technically comparable with, for example, female Pakistani shalwar trousers, or in fact are a step up – as they have more practical uses. Furthermore, whether to wear jeans or not is not the key issue – it’s how, when and where.

Therefore, does that mean that:

  • Muslim dress = national dress, from Muslim countries
  • non-Islamic dress = items from East/West not associated with Islam, e.g. baseball cap, Japanese tabi (split toe socks)

Islamic dress is really about covering certain body parts; in addition to some parts, which should be covered to hide also their shape. The informed tribes of Muslim Youth social networkers understand this concept, perhaps at times better than their elders – and this basic principle allows youth to experiment.

There also appear to be two staring points:

  1. Muslim dress, with non-Islamic ‘peripherals’ (accessory items) e.g. male: wearing thoub/kandora (long white robe), with a Yankees baseball cap and Timberland boots
  2. Non-Islamic dress, with Islamic peripherals e.g. female: wearing rah-rah mini skirt over jeans, with a headscarf and dog tag chain saying ‘Muslim and proud’.

But from these two ends of the spectrum: fashion, customisation, personalisation and collective individualism appear to be on the increase. They are encouraging youth to congregate around brand-centric tribes and to associate brands with their faith. Furthermore, from a marketing perspective, you have youth who are more likely to wear more clothes, layers and use greater volumes of fabric – so that means more brand site opportunities and consumption.

So for marketers, the present suggests that future young Muslim consumers will become more vocal, experimental, are brand hungry and marketing savvy. Therefore we look set for more cool adverts like this one, featuring Malaysian recording artist Yuna:

The interesting thing to watch for will be how many brands outside of Muslim countries would be willing to have a headscarf-wearing woman modelling their products in the same way. My gut says not many – but wouldn’t it be a great way to use nudge marketing and brands to spearhead the encouragement of societal harmony, through humanisation and inductive cultural understanding?

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