Religious Representation Online

Dear Sherina,

On this blog, you and I have previously discussed Youtubers and their influence. Recently, I’ve discovered a new favourite. A half-English, half-Egyptian fashion designer and blogger by the name of  Dina Torkia. With a sizeable online following which includes 316,000 Youtube subscribers, she has made quite a name for herself in the Muslim fashion and beauty world.  Her channel is filled with videos ranging from hijab/turban tutorials, lookbooks, makeup tutorials to DIY clothing tutorials. As a devout Muslim woman, there are certain guidelines she follows when it comes to dress. She is a ‘hijabi’, which means that she does not show her hair and often wears a headscarf in a traditional or turban style. As she explains it, the concept of ‘hijab’ is not simply putting a scarf on your head. Rather, it guides how interact with others and how you represent yourself to the world.

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Dina is such an upbeat, outspoken and downright hilarious individual that it’s hard to imagine that she would be on the receiving end of negativity. The majority of the comments on her Youtube videos are positive, however it’s hard not to notice the amount of criticism she gets. The criticism doesn’t often come from non-Muslims, but from others within her faith community. They claim that she is  ‘misrepresenting’ Islam and that she ought to be ashamed of herself for wearing makeup – among other things.

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I would argue the contrary. As someone who is not well-educated on religion, I admit that before I started watching her I knew very little about Islam. Her channel is not a religious education channel, but because her faith is such a big part of her life you do learn a few things. Since I started following her Youtube and Instagram, I feel as though I’ve learned more about modest clothing guidelines, Muslim holidays, religious practices and everyday Islamic terms. To give you an example, when she’s on her channel discussing a future project, she might say “inshallah it all goes well”. I was curious as to what inshallah meant, so I looked it up and translated roughly it means “if God wills it” or “God willing”.

I feel like with all of the misconceptions that surround Muslim people and the Islamic faith, it’s so important to have people like Dina out there to shatter them. She, in my humble opinion, does a fantastic job of representing the diversity within her religion.

What are your thoughts?

Ceanray

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Dear Ceanray,

After reading your letter I watched some of Dina’s videos, and I completely agree with you; it’s so hard to imagine how she could receive negative comments. I found Dina’s channel incredibly enlightening, as I, like you, knew very little about Islam before watching her videos. Even from watching a Q&A video, I became more educated. I think it’s amazing that we are able to learn more about a religion through YouTube!

I also agree with you that Dina’s channel is all the more important not just because it provides education, but because it shatters some of the negative myths that surround Muslim people. I’m sure you remember the recent controversy in Canada about women wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. The issue blossomed into a debate not just about wearing the niqab when becoming a Canadian citizen, but in general.

Stephen Harper, our then Prime Minister, said with regards to the debate about the niqab that “[the Muslim] culture is anti-women”. Many Canadians protested this statement, because we knew it was a lie which was simply feeding the culture of fear that has been created around people of a certain faith. Some people, however, agreed with Harper’s sediment. Likely, those people didn’t know any Muslim women, or Muslim people, so they accepted his statement at face value.

We shouldn’t need proof that the Muslim culture is not anti-women – we should be able to realize such generalizing statements are ludicrous and inaccurate – but unfortunately we do. Fortunately, we have amazing people like Dina Torkia who help to set the record straight.

Sherina

Youtubers and Their Influence

Dear Ceanray,

To begin my letter, I wanted to thank you for a lot of things: for always being there for me, for fueling my interest in politics and feminism… and for introducing me to Zoella, AKA my favourite YouTuber ever. I don’t think you meant to introduce me to her, in a formal sense. I just remember you texted me saying to check out one of her videos, so I did. And then I became obsessed with her channel.

As of this month, Zoella has over 9 million subscribers. She also has one book published, another set to come out next month, and a line of bath and beauty products; both of which debuted to record-breaking sales. Zoella’s success is a testament to her own talent and character; and it is also a testament to the platform that led to her success: YouTube.

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The website has over 1 billion users, and 300 hours of video are uploaded every minute. According to an article on Variety.com, a survey found that “YouTube stars scored significantly higher than traditional celebrities across a range of characteristics considered to have the highest correlation to influencing purchasing among teens.”

Looking at survey comments and feedback, teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities, who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros. Teens also say they appreciate YouTube stars’ more candid sense of humor, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit, behaviors often curbed by Hollywood handlers.

I know that I find YouTube stars, like Zoella, more candid and genuine than celebrities. Many YouTubers post blogs – video blogs about their everyday lives – so viewers feel like they really get to know the stars. Variety’s survey findings are significant to me not because of purchasing influence, but because it demonstrates that young people can find good role models in YouTubers.

Many YouTube stars are open about their struggles; Zoella vlogs often about her anxiety, and fans flock to the comments to share their own stories of living with anxiety. YouTube stars are real people showing us their real lives and real struggles, and I think this is amazing.

Who are your favourite people to watch online? And what do you think about the influence YouTubers have on our generation?

Sherina

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Dear Sherina,

In junior high, one of my friends at the time introduced me to a channel called ‘danisnotonfire’ run by a young British man by the name of Dan Howell. I was going through a tough time when his channel was shown to me, and his humorous videos provided a welcome reprieve. I began exploring other British youtubers like Louise Pentland, Marcus Butler,Tanya Burr and Zoe Sugg (zoella!) – to name a few.

When it comes to things like makeup tutorials, people are perhaps more inclined to listen to the advice of a person who they can see and interact with – someone who is just like you and me. This can be a more preferable way of consuming, say, information on the best foundation brands to use rather than a faceless article on a magazine website or blog.

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As you mentioned, Youtubers have huge fan followings and widespread influence as a result of their online popularity. Companies have started to take notice; Tanya Burr has her own cosmetics range available online and Louise Pentland has just announced the release of her new plus-size clothing line for women. These are all remarkable feats considering the fact that few of these Youtubers started out intending to have books published and cosmetics and clothing lines released.

It’s so great to see that books like Zoe Sugg’s ‘Girl Online’ have surged in sales, encouraging young people to pick up a book and read! It should also be noted that the majority of Youtubers are relatively young, and have created lucrative online careers for themselves. In a day and age where young people are constantly told that they have no hope of ever getting a job unless they attend university, an ‘online career’ provides an interesting alternative to the message that we are constantly being fed.

Ceanray

On Invisible Burdens

Dear Ceanray,

When I decided to follow Buzzfeed on Twitter, I knew it would take up a lot of my feed. I made the decision that this was alright. I was prepared to see some heartwarming stories, and some heartbreaking ones. Yesterday, I came across an article that fell into the second category.

The article is titled “Teacher Shares Heartbreaking Anonymous Notes Through the ‘I Wish My Teacher Knew’ Project” and it details the story of a teacher from Denver who had her grade three class write out their answers to finish the sentence ‘I wish my teacher knew ________’. The results were a candid look into the lives of the students.

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Frank Warren famously said, “Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart.” The secrets of these young children broke my heart. This article reminded me that many people carry a burden, and sometimes this burden is invisible.

When we look at someone, we only see the visible – for example, that their reading log isn’t signed. What we don’t see is that their parents aren’t home to sign it, and because of this we treat the person differently than if we had known of their secret struggle.

We can never truly know what someone else is going through, and for this reason we should try to extend kindness to everyone. Sometimes, it can help lift that invisible burden even just a little bit.

I think the article has been revised since the time I read it yesterday, but an earlier version mentioned that at recess the student who had written that she had no one to play with had been surrounded with friends. These notes not only changed the teachers perspective of how she acted towards her students, but it also changed how the students themselves acted.

Although this was an instance when invisible burdens were made visible, this isn’t always the case. If everyone in the world acted with the assumption that invisible burdens are present for the people they interact with, I think the world would be a better place.

Sherina

Dear Sherina,

When I read the “I wish my teacher knew” messages written by students, my heart broke. I believe reading these notes evoked such a strong reaction from me not just because of my compassion for these children suffering on the inside, but my own sense of guilt.

We are both very busy people, and I am sure you can sympathize with the “ahh how am I going to keep up with all this?!” feeling. Between school, sports, extracurriculars and jobs it is far too easy to become preoccupied with our own lives. When things happen in our personal lives, we often look around and think to ourselves “why does no one seem to care that this is happening? Do they not understand?”

When the roles are reversed, others are left wondering the same thing. The truth is, I believe we all have the right intentions when it comes to being kind and empathetic towards other human beings. However, those concerns often become a secondary priority.

There are times when someone else’s behaviour gets on my nerves and I have to remind myself not to react negatively. They might’ve been having a bad day, there may have been things going on at home and that person might have just needed to blow off some steam. Letting someone know that you’re there for them if they need you is often a far better response than judging their behaviour alone. As you mentioned, it can help lift the invisible burden even just a little bit. The power of kindness is will always be greater than the power of ignorance.

Remember, there is almost always more to a person than meets the eye. Everyone deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect no matter the situation. I feel one one of my favourite Plato quotes is relevant to this discussion; “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Ceanray

Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword

Dear Sherina,

Our generation is in possession of one of the most powerful weapons of all time. We can share and upload our thoughts and expressions for all the world to see simply by pressing a button. This weapon must also be respected and cared for properly. If misused, it can and will backfire.

In previous letters, we have discussed social media campaigns such as #BellLetsTalk and the incredible effect they can have. Other well known awareness campaigns include some of my personal favourites  #YesAllWomen and #AskHerMore.

In recent weeks, Twitter users took to the popular social networking site using the hashtags #whiteandgold and #blueandblack to debate the colour of a dress that was initially posted on Tumblr. The dress trended worldwide and approximately 10 million Twitter users added to the debate. In case you were wondering, the actual colour of the dress was revealed to be blue and black.

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Understandably, many were angry that something as trivial as a dress had gained global media attention overnight when there are human rights violations that happen every day with little recognition from a worldwide audience.

The Salvation Army, a Christian denominational church and international charitable organization, capitalized brilliantly on the internet sensation that is “the dress”. They used female models posing in the dress to call attention to domestic violence, and the countless women who suffer silently on a daily basis.

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The powerful images speak to the true capacity of social media to create awareness and spark intelligent conversation.

Ceanray

Dear Ceanray,

I’m really glad you shared the story of how a picture of dress that seemed to change colours became a powerful advertisement for a serious issue. That story highlights the positive impact that social media can have; there are also, as I’m sure you know, many negative impacts of social media.

In the opening line of your letter you describe social media as “a powerful weapon.” This got me thinking about whether or not social media is actually a weapon. The December hacks on Sony Entertainment, in which private emails were leaked and national security was threatened over the release of a controversial movie, showed that “cyberwar” (as it is dubbed by some) is a formidable threat.

My worry is that this is just the beginning. I don’t even think we’ve scraped the surface of what technology is capable of – a scary thought. In our lifetimes, technology has already advanced so much. With these advances have come increases in hacks, identity fraud, and cyberbullying.

According to dosomething.org, 43% of kids have been bullied online. Social media websites with direct chat features make it easier for bullies to approach kids – because when they are behind a computer screen, they can feel invincible.

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Like many things in this world, social media has its positives and its negatives. I don’t know if the positives outweigh the negatives – they don’t seem to. Then again, I love my cat videos and “what fruit matches your personality” quizzes (brought to me via social media) as much as the next girl.

Is social media dangerous? Yes – of course. Is it always dangerous, though? No. It all depends on how people use it. The power is in our hands. Let’s be responsible, kind, and purposeful with our use of social media!

Sherina


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