If you pay close attention to big market fast fashion brands, it’s quite apparent that cultural appropriation has existed for far too long. Just this week, fashion retailer brand SHEIN was exposed on Instagram for not only mislabeling South Asian clothing as sleepwear, but also misrepresenting Islamic prayer rugs, an important item used by Muslims to worship and complete the daily five prayers.
The prayer rugs were marketed as everyday household items, calling them fringe carpets and labelling them as Greek. They even had images of the Kaaba, the holiest site for Muslims. Because of the importance of prayer rugs, it’s absolutely necessary for them to be handled with care, but SHEIN’s false advertising of the product angered Muslims all across the platform (and rightfully so).
The reviews under the prayer rugs were appalling, with many customers saying that they’ve used the “carpets” for their pets and coffee tables.
“For a customer to unknowingly buy this, step over it, and use it for decoration is not only a form of disrespect, but it’s also a form of cultural appropriation and they basically exploited their naive customers, who aren’t informed of what an Islamic prayer mat looks like, into making a quick buck,” said 19-year-old college student Nilo Gardezy from Arizona. “It’s not a coincidence that they stole this exact design that’s on almost 90%, if not all prayer mats.”
These items off of the SHEIN website were initially found by Khadija Rizvi, a student journalist based out of the United Kingdom.
Rizvi has been keeping a close eye on the website for a while, saying that she “was baffled” when seeing that the website advertised South Asian clothing as a normal pantsuit without any explicit indication that the marketed outfits have Desi origins. She initially posted this information on her story and many took notice of the issue.
As for the prayer mats, one of Rizvi’s followers brought it to her attention, and after looking on the website once again, took the product to her Instagram to make a detailed post.
“As a journalist, and activist, I believe that it’s my duty to use my platform to raise awareness of the corners that people sometimes overlook in society,” said Rizvi.
Rizvi’s post ultimately garnered the attention of nearly 43,000 users, with beauty influencer Nabeela Noor even taking notice.
“I did not expect my post to blow up the way that it did, I shared my own outrage and it turned out that tens of thousands feel the same way,” said Rizvi. “This led to the items being removed, we did it together.”
SHEIN has made a comment on the situation, but has yet to make a formal apology. I mean, after religiously appropriating Muslims, AND misleading customers into buying Desi clothes as sleepwear, it’s the least they can do.
“I definitely believe that brands need to be held accountable, big or small,” said Rizvi. “It’s not acceptable to cherry pick a culture or religion and rename their items to your liking. I think SHEIN taking down the prayer mats is a step in the right direction, but nowhere near what we want to achieve.”
Rizvi, along with many of her followers feel the same way, with some even going as far as to making petitions. One petition made by 16-year-old Ummay Rabbab has already gotten around 4,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.
“I found out about the SHEIN situation through social media, as I saw everyone posting about how it’s very disrespectful and harmful to the Muslim community,” said Rabbab. “After seeing it, I immediately started to look for ways that I could stop SHEIN from profiting off of the prayer mats. This led me to create a petition, and before I knew it, people were signing and sharing it around.”
Rabbab’s efforts have extended even further, reaching out to SHEIN via email and persistently messaging the brand over socials.
“They apologized over Twitter, but their account doesn’t even have a fraction of the amount of followers they have on Instagram,” said Rabbab. “I’m trying my best to get SHEIN to publicly apologize on Instagram, and until then, we will not stop.
But even after making two, *very generic* apologies, and taking down the prayer mats from their website, the Desi clothing continues to live on their website, being purchased by hundreds of unknowing customers everyday. It doesn’t just stop at Desi clothing, but even pieces like Kaftan dresses that are traditionally from Arab origins.
Now tell me, is a Kaftan being called a “tribal print split back draped longline dress” appropriate? If you dig even deeper, listed on the SHEIN website are outfit pieces with Islamic calligraphy written on them that are ALSO being marketed as tribal. It’s outright disrespectful and it needs to go.
SHEIN is only one example of how large companies can exploit the clothing of certain cultures, and can even go as far to appropriate religions too. SHEIN, if you’re going to sell South Asian and Middle Eastern clothing, perhaps think about getting some South Asian or Middle Eastern models. Just a thought.
So, after all of this, my biggest takeaway is that I personally need to be more mindful of the clothing I buy. I am absolutely guilty of buying shirts that have Chinese characters on them without the full meaning, especially when I was younger. The characters on my outfit were probably appropriating the Chinese culture and I had no idea, and now that it’s happening to the clothing I personally wear, I now understand that this is a real issue.
In the future, I absolutely want to do more research behind the companies that I purchase my clothing from, and SHEIN is a company that I believe needs to make changes to the clothing options they offer on their website.
SHEIN has released a formal apology on their Instagram page following the outrage of the Muslim community on social media.
As many continue voicing their frustration with the company, Rizvi and Noor have responded to SHEIN with messages of optimism.
“Thank you for your statement and I am sure others will be pleased to see it too,” Rizvi commented. “I hope this leads on to careful reviews of all your products and a safe open dialogue with your customers. We can all move forward together in a positive way.”
Noor commented similarly, revealing that she had spoken with the company directly in hopes to catalyze change.
“Thank you for your statement and commitment to change – and a thank you to George, Head of the Brand for having an open dialogue with me about this,” Noor commented. “I will continue the conversation and hope that this will serve as an opportunity for growth and a deeper sensitivity and appreciation for all communities.”
SHEIN stepping up to apologize is definitely putting them in the right direction in terms of acknowledging that there are faults with the merchandise they sell on their website, but there is still so much more to be done. Here’s hoping that they keep their promise in taking further action in making SHEIN a more culturally and religiously aware company.