We’ll begin with the nice, non-controversial part of this story: Mimu Maxi is a small clothing line in Brooklyn, owned by two sisters-in-law from Crown Heights, Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik. Hecht and Notik are observant Orthodox Jews, and as such, as they write on their website, they’ve often struggled to find clothes that were stylish but still as modest as Orthodox custom requires. “But instead of bemoaning the trials and tribulations of shopping with modest sensibilities in mind,” as their company bio puts it, “they took matters into their own hands and set out to create the ultimate pieces they so needed for their wardrobe.”
Not everybody who wears Mimu Maxi is Orthodox, of course. A popular Muslim fashion blogger from St. Louis named Summer Albarcha, who goes by the name “Hipster Hijabis” on Instagram is also a fan of their line. Like observant Orthodox Jews, many observant Muslim women struggle to find sufficiently modest, stylish clothes.
So far, so good, right? Well, there’s more: On July 12, the fashion line and the blogger decided to do a little collaboration. Albarcha posted a photo of herself to Instagram wearing a lime-green Mimu Maxi skirt, paired with a white collared shirt, a few simple accessories, and of course, her hijab. It looked smashing. Mimu Maxi re-posted it to its Facebook page and to Instagram. And that’s when everything went all to hell.
According to local Orthodox news service Col Live , Mimu Maxi’s Orthodox customer base immediately erupted in disapproval, saying that a photo of a woman in a hijab during this time of heightened Israeli/Palestinian conflict was “insensitive.”
“Definitely not the right timing,” one angry clothing fan wrote on the Facebook page, according to Col Live.
Another wrote to the news service strongly suggesting that such a photo was “appalling.” Col Live says the email read:
Let’s face it, Israel is currently under attack, and people, our own brothers and sisters, are living in fear! Many people, who will scroll down their feed and suddenly see a Muslim woman in garb on a frum clothing page, will, initially, be appalled.
There may have been nothing wrong if the photo was posted in a different time and place, however, it was posted in a time when our brothers need our support.
(“Frum” is the Yiddish word for an observant person or organization.)
All the negative comments on the Instagram post can be viewed here. A number of women even vowed to boycott the clothing line over their perceived treachery.The backlash got so bad that Mimu Maxi, issued an open letter on Facebook, calling out their own customer base for intolerance. It was also cross-posted to Instagram.
“It was exciting for us to share a Muslim modest fashion blogger’s style-take on our design,” they wrote in part of the letter. “It was modest. It was feminine. It was beautiful. The post received a disproportionate number of “likes” and lots of beautiful open support, highlighting the integrity and openness of the majority of our followers and customer base. That did not go unnoticed.”
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At the same time, they add, “a different kind of response from a number of our Jewish followers was truly alarming. Although we understand the visceral reaction, we were shocked to see women immediately pit themselves against us, essentially accusing us of being insensitive, putting our business above morals and threatening to ‘unfollow’ and never purchase from us again — effectively ‘copying’ the way of Israel/Jewish haters by boycotting a beautiful, holy Jewish business!”
Mimu Maxi reminded their followers, too, that modesty is considered a “mitzvah,” or a holy good deed, for Muslim women as well as Jews. “As a light unto the nations, any Jewish support of modesty in the world at large should be promoted, should be encouraged,” they write. “Modesty of the women of the world is a GOOD thing. The farther and more ‘foreign’ the reach, the better. Collaboration on this essential value is important and must be embraced by the Jewish community.”
The letter ends on a note of defiance: “[W]e stand by this decision 100%. Summer is a modest fashion blogger from Missouri who shares some of our deepest values and did not deserve the ensuing response simply by collaborating with us on a beautiful shared cause that we are ALL meant to embrace…more than ever…especially now.”
Albarcha, the Hipster Hijabis blogger, says she was surprised by the amount of vitriol directed at her photo. “To be honest, it didn’t occur to me at all when I agreed to collaborate with Mimu Maxi that such comments would be a problem and/or appear,” she tells the Voice via email. “I had more of an idea that this collaboration would show Mimu Maxi’s versatility with all faiths through their modest clothing, and I expected a lot more positive feedback from her followers.”
She adds, too, that she was hurt by the commentary, “especially because I hadn’t taken any political stances through the photo. The criticism was mostly because of the assumption that my head scarf indicated my ties to Palestinian terrorist organizations. I found this to be extremely unfair. Instagram, especially on a fashion page who supports the same ideals about modesty and promoting God’s beauty as Muslims do, was the last place I expected to receive such backlash.”
Albarcha says she’s worked on various interfaith dialogues in the past. “I have amazing friends in the Jewish community, whom I wouldn’t blame or tie to the tragedies in Israel or Palestine.”
Mimi Hecht of Mimu Maxi tells the Voice, “We were definitely surprised by the negative reaction to the photo. It certainly is not the Jewish way to be attacking or hateful. At the same time, given high tensions between Jews and Muslims right now, we totally, totally understand the visceral reaction. But truthfully, its exactly at this time that such a collaboration means the most.”
Hecht adds that they didn’t censor even some of the most negative comments. “Our followers and customers are entitled to have a voice. We only took down some comments that were personally attacking to Summer. She did something beautiful by uniting with us on a shared value.”
She says, too that they’ve received many messages of support, and calls the experience “very eye-opening.” She adds, “The greatest thing that came out of it is seeing how the Jewish world is so open to uniting with Muslims over shared values! As Jews, we stand for certain values and we’re proud to have embraced those values with Summer. What a beautiful thing.”
For her part, Albarcha is also choosing to look on the bright side: “These comments were not discouraging at all, but rather empowered me to understand that there is a possibility for everything when posting on social media. I also gained a number of new followers from the Jewish community who were enthusiastic about my page and hijabi fashion.” Nor does she regret working with Mimu Maxi, even though everything went slightly sideways. “I truly appreciate their efforts to promote more interfaith interaction and take it higher than just a political or religious conflict. “
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that all negative comments on the photo of Albracha had been deleted. Mimu Maxi says only comments making personal attacks on Albracha were deleted. This post has been updated with comments from Mimi Hecht.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 15, 2014