Shortly after President Donald Trump’s original ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries in early 2017, Malak Afaneh PO ’21 was wearing Palestinian clothing at a bus stop in Chicago when someone yelled out at her.
“Why don’t you just go back where the hell you’re from?”
The insult to her culture and identity inspired her to stand up for herself and her Muslim culture in America. As a senior in high school at the time, Afaneh established an apparel business and social movement known as Rosie the Hijabi.
Her company creates apparel with an image of a woman in a hijab flexing her bicep, a play off the iconic Rosie the Riveter image, a symbol of female empowerment in the workforce and national pride since the 1950s. Afaneh said her products make a statement and provide a voice to the marginalized.
“Why don’t we take this historic American figure that everyone … can relate to on some extent and make sure it centers Muslim voices by putting a hijab on it?” Afaneh said. “We’ve always been here and we have a right to be here and to return to our homeland if we wish.”
Now at Pomona College, Afaneh has expanded the brand with the help of students across the 5Cs, continuing to encourage inclusivity and Islamic feminism. She said she has been inspired by her surrounding academic atmosphere and influence, which transform her and Rosie the Hijabi every day.
Below the image of Rosie the Hijabi is a message of “Together We Can,” written in Arabic. This message was designed to promote an inclusive environment through empathy, discourse and understanding each other’s voices even if they are in a different language, Afaneh said.
Afaneh chose to keep the slogan in Arabic because she believes it is important for everyone to take the time and effort to reach out and understand other cultures, something she has held close to heart at college.
“Being at Pomona, not only through an academic sense but through a personal sense, I’ve been able to explore what being Muslim means to me,” Afaneh said. “Before, I only saw it as one part of my identity. Now, being Muslim is a way of life and something I attribute to everything … I want my time at Pomona to exemplify that.”
Afaneh launched a website for her company, with the intention of being accessible to anyone around the world. She hopes to turn the small business into an expanded clothing line, and visualizes eventually filling an art gallery with rows of her apparel instead of paintings.
Currently, she is working with two other women of color at the 5Cs to create two new designs. Graphic designer Alexa Ramirez PO ’22 said she helps materialize Afaneh’s ideas: centering Muslims and acknowledging the integral position of women of color in America.
“I am in charge of making sure everything fits with each other, has the same brand and same mission statement while still aesthetically fitting together,” Ramirez said.
According to Afaneh, future potential designs include the Statue of Liberty with a focus on Middle Eastern and Palestinian attire. The purpose of the business’ growth is for Rosie the Hijabi to continue to dismantle racist and sexist beauty standards, she said.
Afaneh said she wants everyone to see themselves represented in today’s fashion industry, and hopes to expand the current brand to include all women of color after being inspired by so many at Pomona.
“I think Pomona is a great community, but I have to say that the people I’ve learned from the most are the women of color here,” Afaneh said. “They are at the center of community groups, making sure everyone’s needs are addressed, and are at the center of mentoring future women of color, passing the torch to the future generations of Pomona students.”
Some of the profits from Rosie the Hijabi are donated to Malikah, a global grassroots movement advocating for universal gender justice and empowering women through workshops on self-defense, healing, organizing and financial mobility. Afaneh became connected to the founder of Malikah through the Posse Foundation, as both women are Posse Scholars from Chicago.
“By donating the profits, I think it’s really important to remember the communities you come from and that while it’s great to have this innovation to create projects, by giving back, you are recognizing how your community shaped you,” Afaneh said. “I’m donating this money to where it needs to go to help the people.”
Rosie the Hijabi has become popular at the 5Cs and is continuing to grow. Afaneh and her team have new designs planned for the future, and are excited to continue the movement past Pomona after graduation.
“We want [the clothing line] to not end when [Afaneh] graduates,” Ramirez said. “We want it to be effective and keep inspiring people while staying relevant.”