Postcolonial marketing and consumption in France

In brief…French diasporic cyberarbiters and market transformations

It is surprising that the consumption patterns of French diasporic communities have been virtually overlooked, despite a growing interest in consumer cultures in Muslim countries and communities. Our article addresses this gap by investigating shifting attitudes in France towards the veiled Muslim body, focusing on the online productions of 4 hijabi (veiled) French Muslim fashion influencers: Zozoliina, Lady Zorro, Salima Aliani, and the Barchamammas. In drawing attention to dynamic consumption-based intersections of modest fashion marketing, we argue that these bloggers have been positioning themselves as cyberarbiters of social and market transformations.

Technocultures in modest fashion cyberspace

Based on an understanding of digital images as sociopolitical artefacts, we consider how our influencers use technology to create new “technocultures” and “technoscapes” to change public opinions, particularly in France, where non-Muslim and secularist attitudes towards hijab remain largely negative.

André Brock’ and Robert Kozinets’ work have been especially useful in providing the framework and tools for our critical technocultural discourse analysis. Brock’s multifaceted understanding of digital objects as “cultural artefacts” that draw from offline notions of race embedded within purportedly “representative” discourses enables us to explore how online indicators of “Islamicness” and “Frenchness” are reflective of offline debates about religious and cultural identities. Kozinets’ emphasis on netnography as a study of the products and processes of technocultural mediation, as they are unfolding in real time, enables us to evaluate how content producers make subtle and explicit references around themes of struggle and agency, ethical/moral actions, and social justice, all within a nexus of discourses and signs centered around the modestly dressed body.

Specifically, critical technocultural discourse analysis allows us to

  • use discourse analysis to evaluate paratextual web images and videos; dialogues between our four content producers and their digital audiences; and messages of fashionable style, modesty, agency and progressive-mindedness embedded within these dialogues
  • engage a visual, semiotic, and rhetorical analysis of the “material” visual aspects of social media; of their design and uses within virtual spaces; and of follower commentaries
  • assess what these images and dialogues suggest about the “normalisation” of the covered female Muslim body within the scope of online discussions of what is “fashionable” and “progressive” in order to identify cultural and religious systems of meaning; and
  • offer observations about how discourses of freedom, agency, and morality infused in online imagery use the language of intersectional feminism and Orientalism alongside Islamically-branded discursive frameworks of modesty.

We understand these discourses to possess the revolutionary potential of a major repositioning of the relationship between France as coloniser and its Muslim former colonies.

Visual riposte and postcolonial digital consumerism

The digital output of 26-year-old modest fashion blogger and designer Zozoliina is particularly instructive for viewing the interplay between these different elements of online meaning-making processes.

 

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In one image from her Instagram feed, Zozoliina, in tenue traditionnelle, wears an ornamented red outfit with silver coins hanging from the sleeves, matching it with a silver choker necklace from which dangle multiple rows of silver coins. Wearing heavy makeup, the space between her bottom lip and chin is decorated with a line that has two dots on either side, recalling the face tattoos worn by Moroccan Berber (Amazigh) women. She stares directly and assertively at her audience. It is a deliberately ambiguous image. Her hair is covered by a cream-colored scarf, tied at the top of her head but exposing her hairline, similar to the çarsaf worn by Turkish working agriculturalist women, a symbol that is far removed from colonialist-era images of the sequestered residents of the harem.

The ensemble that Zozoliina sports in this image is both evocative and deliberately misleading, merging cultural signifiers and blurring subject and object, yet thwarting a potential Orientalist, spectatorial gaze with a look that merges pleasure and politics. Far from suggesting that the dynamic power of the gaze has shifted to render her stance as simply an act of resistance against an Orientalising trope of the (sexually available, racially inferior) Arab female Muslim body, however, we see her stance as evidence of the inherent instability of such a trope.

Similarly, the web-based and social media content produced by the hijabi modest fashion influencers Barcha (Iman and Lamia), Lady Zorro and Salima Aliani are infused with symbols and discourses of freedom, agency, and morality. The persuasive force of their online content lies, we contend, in its ability to seamlessly move between multiple frameworks of meaning drawn from Islamic moral-ethical discourses of modesty and piety, re-imagined hybrid ethno-cultures, contemporary celebrity identity discourses, and the language of intersectional feminism. Moreover, the personal brands that all of these women are building through their online productions and interactions with followers reflect a modest fashion market context that is increasingly global and crosses lines of faith community.

Findings

In bridging complex ideological, cultural, and commercial gaps between Islamic frames of reference and French secularism, the hijabi modest fashion influencers in our article reflect an increase in the consumption of “Islamically-branded-or approved products” by secular, non-Muslim Western consumers. They also perform a “visual riposte,” or return of the gaze, whereby the subjects in front of the camera playfully interrogate a potentially essentialising, racialising lens. In both evoking and challenging prevalent modes of racial and cultural subject formations of the veiled Muslim body, these “cyberarbiters” serve as revolutionary market mediators of social transformation in France, rejecting pressure to be “Franco-conformist” while asserting their hybrid Muslim-French identities on their own terms. Specifically, their growing popularity is beginning to shift attitudes about the intersections of Islam, the body, and female sexuality – particularly among young, millennial followers.

This technocultural push and pull, which swings from a distinct Muslim, modest fashion ideal to a vaguely ethnic brand that all women of any faith can relate to, recalls the current parameters of a “Kardashian Kulture,” as noted in the 2019 book by Ellis Cashmore, one which accentuates liminal, hybridized identities and the compatibility of Islam and neoliberal markets.

Final thoughts…

While young Muslim women in France are aware of clearly defined social norms and their strictures in real-life interactions with non-Muslim “Others,” they often circumvent these norms within digital spaces. In part, this ability reflects market shifts towards a global ethos extolling difference as a form of empowerment, and in part it is a function of the growing capital of the modest fashion industry as well as of a celebrity culture in which nearly everything can be commoditized, and “ownership” over the symbols of identity is increasingly open to negotiation.

More detailed studies of the semiotic and rhetorical work that is being accomplished by such processes of identity formation are needed, as are critical analyses of hijabi influencers’ usage of new digital technologies. Such work will help us better understand the impact of technocultures on our deepest beliefs and perceptions of the world we share and the people who inhabit it.

Read the original research article: Pemberton, K. & Takhar, J. (2021). A critical technocultural discourse analysis of Muslim fashion bloggers in France: charting ‘restorative technoscapes’. Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2020.1868551

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K Pemberton

Kelly Pemberton

Kelly Pemberton is Associate Professor of Religion and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the WGSS program at The George Washington University. She is the author of Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India (2010), and co-editor of the volume Shared Idioms Sacred Symbols and the Articulation of Identities in South Asia (2009). Her research focuses on South Asia and the Middle East in four key areas: Sufism, religious authority, civil society, and Islamic activism, especially as these relate to gender.

J Takhar

Jennifer Takhar

Jennifer Takhar is an Associate Professor of Marketing and Communication at ISG Business School and a research affiliate at Celsa, Paris 4 Sorbonne. Her research interests lie in Consumer Culture, digital identity politics, transhumanisms, biotechnologies, innovative research methods and articulating marketing dynamics through novel representational forms. Her work is attentive to the rhetorical and literary strategies used to persuade consumers. Jennifer has published on these subjects in marketing journals including Marketing Theory, the Journal of Marketing Management and Consumption, Markets & Culture.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.