Hijab Girl and the Pepsi Ad

Earlier this week, Pepsi released an ad with Kendall Jenner that swiftly became so controversial, so mocked and derided on social media, that they had to withdraw it yesterday with an apology. The ad shows Jenner, an American model, in a photoshoot as a protest march takes place on the street outside. Encouraged by a cello-playing youth to join in, she marches with the protestors, young people of all backgrounds and orientations, then strides up to a police officer and hands him a Pepsi.

This is the part of the ad that got the most flak: the idea that a privileged white woman, conventionally beautiful and internationally celebrated only for beauty and fame, can simply hand a police officer a soft drink and accomplish what activists on the ground have failed to do. It belies the reality that activists, many of them from minority backgrounds, are the real heroes of resistance movements. It deserved the heat, and makes you wonder who exactly conceives of these ideas. If they’re highly-paid ad executives with some talent and vision, how can they be so tone deaf as to how poorly a concept will look and play out once executed?

Still, there was an element of the ad that I absolutely loved. This involved the story, along with the Kendall Jenner awakening story, of a young woman photographer who also becomes involved in the movement. She’s a young, brown-skinned woman who wears a hijab and jeans, which immediately identifies her as an American Muslim.

At first she’s holed up in her studio, looking at her photographs. But then, as the march goes on outside her building, she has an epiphany. She becomes visibly upset and angry. You see her crumpling up her photos, then throwing them aside, and holding her head in her hands. Then, she seizes her camera and bag and runs out to the street to photograph the march. She’s out there on the front lines, no longer a passive, hidden face. She photographs the vital moment of Jenner giving the officer the soda. And she marches, in the end, along with Jenner and the cello player.

I have to say that this element of the ad is what made it moving for me. In fact, I believe the ad would have been fantastic if it had been about the cello player and the Muslim woman. Particularly the Muslim woman’s story, because it echoes what is happening with Muslim women around the world. In fact, watching her gave me goosebumps — the opposite reaction to this essay by Tasbeeh Herwes, which says that the hijabi girl is actually the more insulting component of the ad.

Living in Pakistan, I’m seeing Muslim women – and South Asian women, and Arab women – literally doing what is being depicted in the ad: that is, becoming aware of their rights, of the injustices done to them in the name of patriarchy and religion, and becoming angry and wanting to take action. They are setting aside the constraints and conventions that say they must stay indoors, away from modern life, and cloister themselves inside. They are out on the streets, getting involved, enjoying life as much as they are directing it.

For those of us smart enough to recognize it, this is the revolution. Whether or not the makers of the Pepsi ad were aware of it, they captured it in the story of the young American Muslim woman (and even if the Muslim woman lives in America, with relatively more freedom than a woman in Pakistan, she is still subject to the same taboos in her community).

We can argue about the significance of the Muslim woman being in hijab, and how that’s simply window dressing, but I would argue that the hijab is a powerful symbol these days, especially in the post-election era when crimes against Muslim women have gone up significantly and Muslim women are tailoring self-defense classes to include attacks on them.

It’s also significant in the sense that these days there is a huge amount of rhetoric about the hijab: “it’s a symbol of oppression” being the main argument propagated by certain American ex-Muslim/secular Muslim activists. This completely takes away the possibility that the hijab has more significance than that, or indeed no significance, arguments elucidated by Muslim women themselves but hardly listened to in mainstream media or elsewherel In that sense, depicting an American Muslim wearing a hijab and acting with agency and positivity effectively counters that argument and introduces the possibility that Muslim women are more than their hijabs.

Loathesome as we may find the burqa or the hijab, the reality for many Muslim women is that it is a vehicle of independence. It allows a Muslim woman from a conservative setting the relative freedom to go out of the house, and conduct her life in a way of her choosing. We may call this a compromise, or not full freedom, but life is, many times, about compromises and expediency. Perhaps a hijab is a ticket to a woman’s increased participation in society, and we need to understand that.

And the key to life is often that to be a good human being, our tolerance must go further than our understanding does.

There’s more Muslim and Arab imagery in the ad: a man standing in eastern clothing wearing a kuffi; protest signs in Arabic. At the end of the ad, the Muslim woman embraces a fellow protestor, which also upends conventions about how a Muslim woman “should” behave in public – and I find that deliciously subversive.

In fact, if the makers of the ad were to cut out Kendall Jenner completely, and focus on the Muslim woman and the other people in the story, I would not just watch that ad, I’d think of it every time I bought a Pepsi. Maybe someone will oblige me and produce a cut of the ad that focuses on the people who matter: the activists, the cello player, the Muslim woman. If you do, let me know and I’ll post it here…


Well, since posting this in the morning I came across “Hijabi” by Syrian-American Mona Haydar. It’s making waves, so here it is for your viewing/listening pleasure. And remember the tagline: Covered or not, don’t ever take us for granted.