‘Hijab Culture’: Branding of Faith In A Capitalist Society. A Study on Popular Media Through the Critical Marxism

‘Hijab Culture’: Branding of Faith In A Capitalist Society. A Study on Popular Media Through the Critical Marxism

Article by Taniah Mahmuda Tinni & Shafinur Nahar.

Abstract: Wolfgang Fritz Haug discusses how capitalism exploits the phenomenon of commodity aesthetics from their economic foundations to develop and present them within their systematic connections through the use of sexuality and appearance in advertising inside the capitalist structure. Followed by such a phenomenon, in recent years capitalism plays a significant role in consuming religious faith or sentiment in the advertisement which affects consumers’ behaviour. In Bangladesh, multinational and small local companies are using religious clothing to attract female Muslim consumers. This paper will focus on a local fashion house and a multinational company, and how both are branding the religious faith, particularly the notion of ‘purdah’ as their marketing strategy. To understand this marketing strategy of contemporary capitalist society and consumerism we look into the neo-Marxist tradition. This study will explore how it creates false needs for religious people in which the ultimate benefits are profits for the companies. Furthermore, it will explain how capitalism manipulates religious sentiment to sell the products, and to understand the reason behind the popularity of these products among female Muslim consumers.

Keywords: Faith, Branding, Advertisement, Capitalism, New Marxism, Muslim Consumers, Bangladesh
Header Image – Photographer: Asma Binte Tarique


Stagnation of capitalism’s monopoly in western societies occurs mostly because of excess supply rather than demand. Globalization with the liberal economic policy aims to capture/control the market. One of the dominant western produced narratives is that practising religion is a conservative phenomenon. However, nowadays western capitalists are using religious sentiment for production purposes. Not only multinational companies but also small businesses are using this tactic. In Bangladesh, almost 90% of the population is Muslim (Population & Housing Census, 2011). Also, the number of people wearing clothes in accordance with religious instruction has increased over the past few years. Local businessmen and multinational companies use this tendency to sell their products. Wolfgang Fritz Haug (1986, p. 8) discusses how capitalism uses “the phenomena of commodity aesthetics from their economic basis and to develop and present them within their systematic connections” by using sexuality and appearance through advertisement within the structure of capitalist society. Following such a phenomenon, capitalism has played a significant role in consuming religious faith or sentiment in advertisements in recent years, affecting consumers’ behaviour. Because of that a current trend in Bangladesh is noticed. Both multinational companies and local or small entrepreneurs use ‘Hijab’ to interest female Muslim consumers in their products. This paper will focus on a local fashion house and a multinational company and how both are branding the holy faith, particularly the notion of ‘purdah’ as their marketing strategy. Also, it tries to understand the reasons why female Muslim consumers are accepting this kind of product advertisement.

Religion, Commodity, and Consumerism

Previous studies show consumerism and religion in different ways in different parts of the world. Social scientists treat religious faith as a critical cultural force to study the market and consumer behaviour. Kale (2004) explained how the interaction between religion and the market influences various social and political institutions to shape the market. Some researchers analyse how religiosity level and religious affiliation impact decision-making and purchasing specific products. For example, Christian consumers’ behaviours and reactions vary when businessmen use religious messages in the secular marketplace. However, Jewish consumers are more innovative and brand loyal than Protestant or Catholic consumers (Tylor et al., 2010). Likewise, religious affiliation affects consumer behaviour and what products and services they prefer (Hirschman, 1981). Another study (Esso & Dibb, 2004) shows that less religious consumers prefer trendy offerings and new products. On the other hand, more religious consumers are more conventional, conservative, and disciplined (McDaniel & Burnett, 1990). It means religiosity affects consumer behaviour. For instance, halal products are creating some of the fastest-growing consumer segments of the world. As a result, the concept of halal cosmetics or personal care products became much more sophisticated in the Middle East, some Asian countries, and the European and U.S markets. For example, the Malaysian halal cosmetics industry has emerged since around 20% of Muslim consumers are worried about the halalness of their products (Mohezar et al., 2016). Such concern of Muslim consumers has created a demand for the development of halal products.

As many religious consumers are so concerned about the products being consistent with their religious beliefs, the capitalist market strategy takes advantage of this concern and uses it. Mara Einstein (2008) talks about the expansion of religious marketing in the past 20 years. It suggests that freedom of choosing one’s religious vantage creates a situation where faith must pay attention to branding issues, just like other commodities. Simultaneously, it brings the change of megachurches dynamic, which led to the creation of home churches and themselves into desirable ‘brands’.

Critical Marxism to Understand the Capitalist Society And the Role of the Culture Industry

New Marxism explains the characteristics of contemporary capitalist society and consumerism, influenced by the Marxist concept of commodity, reification, and fetishism. Although they rely upon the Marxist idea of commodity fetishism, they focus on the idea that nowadays commodities penetrate various sectors of our lives. This idea cannot adequately comprehend modern capitalism (Held, 1980). The members of the Frankfurt school explained how mass culture, advertisement, bureaucracy, and social administrations provide a new room for social control (Kellner, 1983). According to them, the entertainment industry, as they call it, ‘culture industry’ was at the centre of new forms and strategies of capitalist integration (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972). They argued that in modern industrial societies, instrumental reason becomes extensive under the pressure of neo-capitalist society. Culture industries use various images and spectacles to manipulate people, which helps to reproduce capitalism (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972). Furthermore, Herbert Marcuse (1964) developed his theory of consumer society and the role of consumption and commodities to reproduce and integrate individuals into it. He argued that the productive apparatus and the goods and services it generates “sell” or “impose” the entire social structure. The commodities of lodging, food, and clothing, as well as the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry, carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, as well as specific intellectual and emotional reactions that bind the consumers more or less to the producers and, through them, to the whole industry. The products indoctrinate and manipulate consumers, promoting a false consciousness impervious to its deception (Marcuse, 1964). Commodities and consumption transform individuals’ needs, values, and behaviour in an advanced capitalist society. Marcuse (1964) saw the possibility of integrating the working class in advanced capitalism by consumerism and conformist needs. He introduces a new concept, ‘false need’. He believed that the prevailing structure has always preconditioned human needs, but it is crucial to distinguish between true and false needs. According to him, true needs are essential to human survival, and “false needs are superimposed upon the individual by particular societal interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice” (Marcuse, 1964, p.7). Marcuse states that freedom and choice become illusory because people are already preconditioned by their predetermined social environment that fixes their range of choices. In this sense, false needs are imposed upon the individuals by the manipulative vested interest, which is artificial. Another sociologist, Haug (1986), expanded the idea of false needs and used the phrase ‘illusion industry’ to explain how it exploits people and manipulates them to accept particular products. Here manipulation refers to ‘moulding of sensuality’, and through the process, human needs are continuously being altered by changing prospects of satisfaction created by commodities. He further explains how capitalists use images to fulfil the promises of use-value by using different images that can appeal to consumers’ needs (Haug, 1986). The concepts like ‘culture industry,’ ‘false need’, and ‘illusion industry’ clarify how multinational companies use religious sentiments and values, making advertisements to promote their products.


Photographer: Asma Binte Tarique

The History of Donning Veil in Bangladesh

Scholars claim that the Quran and Hadith guidance about Purdah is subjected to various interpretations. The religious and legal regulations raise a lot of Purdah issues as some argue that only the prophet’s wives or people from the upper class of society should follow Purdah, and the reason for that was to keep them from having sex because they wanted to control women’s sexuality. Some scholars do not agree with that statement and argue that it is for everyone. Also, there is a debate about doing religious rituals in a “proper” way. Should they cover half of their body, or all body parts should be covered? Additionally, should women be covered all the time or only during a specific time and space? (Yusuf, 2014). Yet, despite all these debates, wearing a burqa or hijab as maintaining Purdah has become very popular among Muslim women. However, the history of wearing a burqa or hijab is not the same for all Muslim women.

Women from Hindu and Muslim religions in the Indian subcontinent wear veil. Historians argue that there is no written document about when the Purdah came to the Indian subcontinent. But there is evidence that Muslim women from Turk and the Mughal emperor did not follow this kind of Purdah today. They were not equal to men, but they did not wear the niqab. In the 16th century, after Emperor Akbar’s reign, women of a particular socio-economic class started donning a veil in the name of a pious life (Shams, 2016). In an interview with DW, a Pakistani historian Mubarak Ali claims that the Purdah is a middle-class phenomenon in South Asia (ibid, 2016). The burqa and niqab were neither worn by the aristocracy nor working-class ladies. Labouring-class women could not wear these garments since they were impractical for them to wear while working in the fields or performing other tasks. Statistics proved that the use of veils and burqas has increased in the past three decades in South Asia (ibid, 2016). According to some political parties, Purdah and righteousness are synonymous in South Asia (ibid, 2016). The phenomenon is linked to the growth of fundamentalism in the region. In the case of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Afghan war in the 1980s, foreign influence on South Asian culture was prevalent. In the 1960s and 70s, many urban women revolted against religious clothing. However, the rise of Saudi-Wahhabi Islam in the 1980s helped revive the veil and introduced the hijab. Hijab is popular among working women who want to appear both religious and modern at the same time. Some people say that hijab or burqa is a reaction to the challenges and contradictions of a globalized world (Shams, 2016). Hijab-wearing women were uncommon in the 1980s, and even the burqa was worn seldom in Bangladesh. However, the number of women who wear burqas and hijabs has steadily increased over the last three decades. Abaya, niqab, chador, burqa, khimar, hijab, and other Islamic veils are easily noticeable on the streets. Previously, the Purdah was only practised by adults who wore a long chador, but recently young ladies, teenagers, and even pre-school girls have been wearing hijab. Over the last few decades, the attitudes of Bangladeshi Muslims have changed dramatically (Abir, 2018). Today, Islamic countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey lead the Islamic fashion industry (Shirazi, 2017). Hijab replaced traditional clothing. Now, wearing a hijab has become a symbol of faith, fashion, and modesty for Bangladeshi Muslim women. Following this trend, the hijab is now considered as a new tool for branding a product: multinational companies and entrepreneurs use the word ‘hijab’ as their marketing strategy to attract Muslim women.

Findings of the Study

This study included a total of 50 women of various ages. During the online survey and interview, women were asked if they used the products with the term “hijab”. Over half of respondents had used products, and less than half had never used products that included the term ‘hijab’ in their branding or advertising. The majority of participants are well-educated. Respondents were asked if they used Sunsilk Hijabi Refresh or Clear Hijab Pure in this study. Also, respondents from Rajshahi city talked about Hijabi, a fashion house established by a group of Muslim entrepreneurs in Rajshahi.

All respondents agreed that the term ‘hijab’ attracts consumers when used in product branding. The interviewers inquired whether the Facebook post ads are spreading religious messages or serve as a marketing tool. According to all respondents, fashion houses utilize these messages as part of their marketing strategy. Nevertheless, they, who wear the hijab, added that they feel pleased seeing those religious-text included posts. For them, modestly dressed women get the highest respect in society. Those who do not wear the hijab think that these posts are problematic because they highlight that women who do not wear the hijab are not treated with respect in society. However, they purchase products from the fashion house due to the high quality of the products.


To conclude, both local and multinational companies pick up the idea of ‘hijab’ to brand their products, giving them an advantage in a competitive market. Those who are highly religious are being affected by the religious messages on Facebook posted by fashion houses and advertisements of SunSilk. Using religious practices for commercial profits is not a new idea. Wolfgang Fritz Haug (1986, p.8) showed how capitalism uses sexuality and appearance in advertising to create illusion through commodity aesthetics to develop and present them to the consumers to buy products. But in this capitalist era, religion appears with a totally new connotation for the market economy where the branding of faith became very important. Also, a neo-liberal free economy expands the whole idea of the market; the entire world becomes a single market. Only innovative ideas can give the stamina to hold the market. Here, capitalists are fixing their market strategy based on market surveys. In the case of Bangladesh, the transformation of clothing patterns allows capitalists to use religious faith to brand their products. Capitalist companies are using faith to attract consumers, but at the same time, they use it to create sexuality and aestheticism through the advertisements on the screen. The responses indicate that they have succeeded in capturing religious consumers. At the same time, they got attracted through the aesthetic representation, which will help flourish their merchandise. Also, the aesthetic representation of models who wear hijab and how they dress up revealed their physical beauty on-screen was one of the significant reasons to buy the product. Finally, multinational companies used faith and sexual appeal to brand their products and to make people believe that they support religious messages. However, this does not mean that the companies try to spread religious beliefs but sell faith for profit.


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