It is often said that fashion is a frivolous pursuit, one for size zero vacuous dilettantes basking in transient, spurious euphoria. But times are changing, what was once glamorous is now elitist. In an age marked by deepening socio-political divides that make the cold war seem like a family feud, sartorial solipsism is soon becoming a thing of the past. Today, Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano are on notice and Coco Chanel stands posthumous trial by Twitter, while Gucci revels in millennial adulation following its decision to donate half a million dollars to a gun control march in Washington DC.   

In Australia, where millennials are projected to account for 54% of the population by 2030, neutrality is no longer prudent and corporate activism is the name of the game. It’s the secret hiding in plain sight, waiting to put you out of business one day should you ever veer from this generation’s unyielding egalitarianism. The only way to stay ahead of the curve is to be an egalitarian millennial yourself. Cue Azahn Munas, the Muslim Australian millennial staging his own politico-sartorial revolution.     

Moga Founder Azahn Munas

A marketer-turned-fashion designer, Munas launched MOGA, an online retailer of silk scarves, in 2016 to fill the market gap for young hijabis. “I had some [Muslim] friends who kept saying that they had very few headscarves that fit their eccentric and over the top personalities,” he recounts. “Everything was a little plain, dull or conservative, so I decided to make something that was bright and colourful for them and for other women who felt similarly.”

Whilst the majority of religions, including Islam, are still largely intolerant towards LGTBQ rights, it is an unfair assumption to make that ALL religious people are not supportive.

The hijab is not just a piece of cloth that Muslim women wrap around their heads; it’s their way of expressing their religious devotion, which eventually isolates them. It’s one thing to preach the gospel to passers-by on Hollywood Boulevard, and another to sport a hijab to your not-so-friendly neighbourhood Costco. But Munas’ silk scarves are intended to thread together these patches of humanity. “We soon realised our product was incredibly versatile and really, could be worn in so many different ways, by so many different people and it had the power to bring communities together instead of keeping them apart,” he says. “As a result, we wanted to push the boundaries of what was deemed ‘acceptable’ for a brand like ours so we could be as diverse and inclusive as possible. Thankfully, it really seems to have worked as our fans range from trendy hijabsters, to hippies at music festivals, to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and even drag queens, who all love to wear our bright colours.”   

In his attempt to empower proud hijabis looking to express both their individuality and devotion, the Sri Lanka-born artist tapped into another form of pride when he launched a line of rainbow–coloured silk scarves in support of gay marriage and LGBTQ+ rights in Australia.

We wanted to push the boundaries of what was deemed ‘acceptable’ for a brand like ours so we could be as diverse and inclusive as possible.

MOGA’s PRIDE scarf debuted last year in support of Australia’s marriage equality movement and sold out in 6 days, according to a statement by the retailer. Being a brusque millennial, however, Munas saved the last one to send to then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who vehemently opposed the legalisation of gay marriage. The PRIDE scarf was re-launched again this year, ahead of the 40th Annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. This year’s campaign featured Australian drag performer Mable Syrup, and bisexual model and activist Kalida Edwards, among others. “As a new brand that prides itself on challenging social norms, we often face some of the same struggles and barriers as members of the [LGBTQ+] community, struggles that include not always fitting into societal expectations or being negatively perceived for simply being different,” he remarks. “For us, the expression of love and identity is paramount to what we stand for. At the end of the day, everyone should feel proud of who they are, regardless of their skin colour, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, and everyone deserves the right to love, and be loved in return.”

But navigating this intersectional landmine of intercommunal and ideological differences is no place for a fashion designer to be. According to a 2013 Pew global study, only in 3 countries, out of 36, do as many as one-in-ten Muslims say that homosexuality is morally acceptable: Uganda (12%), Mozambique (11%) and Bangladesh (10%). While another study, also conducted in 2013, found that 84% of LGBT Americans believe Islam to “unfriendly” to their community.

We often face some of the same struggles and barriers as members of the [LGBTQ+] community, struggles that include not always fitting into societal expectations or being negatively perceived for simply being different.

Conversely, there has been a growing trend of LGBTQ+ acceptance among Muslim millennials, especially in the West. According to a 2017 report by Pew Research Centre, more than half (52%) of American Muslims believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, as opposed to 39% and 27% in 2011 and 2007, respectively. And another survey found American Muslims to be more accepting of homosexuality than Evangelical Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons. “I absolutely believe Muslim millennials are helping to change attitudes when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. Whilst the majority of religions, including Islam, are still largely intolerant towards LGTBQ rights, it is an unfair assumption to make that ALL religious people are not supportive,” he argues. “We at MOGA refuse to paint everyone with the same brush, and are trying to break social stigmas surrounding these issues and generate a healthy discussion that could hopefully lead to more acceptance and tolerance on this front.”  

Yet, like any millennial, Munas believes it is his duty to speak truth to power within his own community, especially the voices that lead the charge on civil rights and anti-Muslim bigotry and wind down when issue of LGBTQ+ rights is raised. “We were, of course, a little concerned with a potential backlash against our brand by conservatives who do not agree with our values of love and acceptance,” he says. “It is never our intention to hurt or offend anyone, but sometimes there is a bigger picture at play. Our brand prides itself on being inclusive of all individuals, regardless of their race, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation/identity. If some people don't agree with that, there is not much we can do about it besides sticking to our own values and promote a safe environment of tolerance and acceptance for our fans.”

Such a bold stance would have been costly for any brand 10 or 20 years ago, let alone a Muslim-owned one, but Munas believes that a silk scarf can change attitudes. “The response to our PRIDE scarf has been overwhelmingly positive! To date, we have not received a single negative private message on our official social media accounts, or through our customer enquiries e-mail,” he says. “We have had messages from over the world, from our fans who reside in Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries, who have thanked us for acknowledging their identity and making such a pro-inclusive statement. We are so thrilled with the response so far and hope it continues to be a positive one.”

At the end of the day, everyone should feel proud of who they are, regardless of their skin colour, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, and everyone deserves the right to love, and be loved in return.

In a binary world where all ethnicities are denied all nuance, hijabis are faring relatively well, considering the recent upswing of fashion retailers catering to conservative Muslim women. But there are greater forces at play here than the economics of the veil, sometimes it is the sheer power of conviction that guides one’s sketches. “We are absolutely using fashion as a tool to promote a social message. […] I remember one time when I was walking in the city with a friend who wears the hijab, I noticed so many people stare or momentarily glance at her. It was rather sad that so many people, even in a cosmopolitan city like Melbourne, had to do a double take just because [she] was wearing a hijab,” he says. “It sadly reflects the age that we live in, but I remember thinking to myself, if people are going to look, you may as well give them something good to look at! This unapologetic ethos is reflective of our fans who want to look and feel good about themselves.”

Our product was incredibly versatile and really, could be worn in so many different ways, by so many different people and it had the power to bring communities together instead of keeping them apart.

In the age of #MeToo, female empowerment comes in all forms. Yet, one form of empowerment that remains confined to the fringes of the feminist movement is the self-empowerment of choosing to wear the veil. A MOGA scarf is not only intended to cover a hijabi woman’s hair, neck, and décolleté, it is meant to celebrate her choices. “We want use our platform to foster an environment of tolerance and acceptance so young women know it is okay be themselves, regardless of their religion, sexuality, culture or background,” he says. “Ultimately, we want women to be confident, comfortable and most importantly proud of their identity and never have to change who they are for anyone.”

Along with celebrating and embracing Muslim women’s choices and freedom to dress as they please in the West, comes the parallel and starkly contrasting reality in the Muslim world at large. For every self-determined hijabi in the West, thousands in the Muslim world are still denied fundamental freedoms and rights, including the freedom of dress. The latter requires a less elaborate and more radical approach, which is why 20% of MOGA’s profits go to the CARE Foundation, an organisation providing secondary education to young girls in Pakistan. “Our partnership with CARE is at the core of our brand. We are not a charity, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t use the platform we have to do good. On a personal note, I think education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty and discrimination against women that keeps them un-empowered and voiceless,” he remarks. “Giving girls the chance to go to school is essential so they can understand just how important and valuable they can be. At the end of the day, it’s 2018 and every child, regardless of their gender should be able to dream big and know that they can achieve greatness.”

Photos courtesy of Moga Fashion

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