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Confessions of a Jaded Drama Queen


This article was originally posted here.

By: Safia Latif

Rows of colorful handbags repose ostensibly on shelves and display tables around me. They boast of their structured silhouettes and textured leathers: boarskin, saffiano, patent. But these aren’t just any handbags. Carefully embossed in the center in glossy patent black or lined in gold, the words of the designer brand catch the eye of even the most timid shopper.

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The brand, a high-end fashion company and daughter of Fifth and Pacific Companies, Inc., a multi-billion dollar global corporation, caters to the world’s sophisticated elite. Handbags, accessories, and clothing are specially designed for a particular type of woman: the career woman on a mission who gracefully flags down taxis and makes important business meetings just in the nick of time – all while modeling the latest haute couture and thousand dollar handbag. She is fun, playful, and smart. But most importantly, she is rich.

This fashion house, like any other global brand, capitalizes on our naivety – our false belief that somehow a glamorous new handbag can solve our problems. Worse yet, it fools real working class Americans into thinking that they too, can be worth a million dollars. You can be a celebrity so long as you acquire this superfluous material item most likely manufactured in China for a fraction of American minimum wage yet sold at the price of an average car payment. The shattering reality, however, carries deep social ramifications.

Last year, I lived abroad in Egypt where I studied Arabic at Alexandria University. When I returned to the States, I began the tedious process of applying to jobs. Egypt – where socioeconomic problems run rampant and a large portion of society visibly lives below the poverty line – had rendered me disillusioned with modernity and materialism. ( So one can imagine what a painful process it was to go from life in a developing country to the shiny interior of a wealthy corporation. I became a temporary employee at the company to make as one of my co-workers thoughtfully put it “fun money,” while I pursued other more long-term enterprises.

I began work, detached and aloof yet resolute in my antipathy towards consumer culture. I hated the slew of handbags and their patina of false promises. I observed as customers attempted to trade in their personal problems for a new designer purse. One woman confabulated with me about a death in the family. She had recently come into money and decided to treat herself. Another woman also lamented over the loss of a family member. This evidently prompted a shopping spree. She bought four purses and a wallet and seemingly trying to justify her lavish expenditure, stated matter-of-factly, “I needed retail therapy.”

My co-workers and managers, puppets of a deceitful corporate puppeteer, cautiously pick up various handbags in the store, and as if children, cradle them longingly. Every particular purse has a name. Eerily, they are treated like animate objects, virtually assuming human value.

“I love this little guy,” my co-worker says, eyeing a pebbled cowhide neon green purse. “Little Curtis is my faaavorite” Another popular piece, the “Beau Bag” or “boyfriend” bag replaces the need for male companionship. It is, according to the official fashion brand’s website, “the ideal companion to tote around town.”

Sales associates, like at most corporate companies, are paid minimally with little health benefits. Pressured into buying product, as the company demands that employees model the name brand at work, associates find their already meager paychecks further diminished. Duped by the illusion that employee discounts actually save them money, they end up spending more in the long run. One manager, a young dainty single mother, struggles to make ends meet every month. Although she works full-time, managing unseemly hours and forsaking invaluable time with her three-year old daughter, she complains mournfully of having to eat ramen noodles for dinner. As American social critic, Chris Hedges contends in his book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle:

The wild pursuit of status and wealth has destroyed our souls and our economy. Families live in sprawling mansions financed with mortgages they can no longer repay. Consumers recklessly rang up Coach handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes on credit cards because they seemed to confer a sense of identity and merit. Our favorite hobby, besides television, used to be, until reality hit us like a tsunami, shopping. Shopping used to be the compensation for spending five days a week in tiny cubicles. American workers are ground down by corporations that have disempowered them, used them, and have now discarded them.

In an age of capitalist fantasy and materialism, Hedges words ring painfully true. The upshot is unavoidable. Societal ills are tempered with and all together forgotten for a beguiling fantasy world that aims to encroach upon even the most fervent iconoclasts. Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad also preaches against materialism. In a scholarly essay, he notes, “when we forget who we are, so radically, the protection begins to be withdrawn, and we are at the mercy of the material world, which we now trust and love more than we trust and love God.”

That God should become secondary to our materialistic pursuits is a very real scare. We see it happening in our local Muslim communities. Muslim families compete over luxurious homes and fancy cars. Intrinsic value is measured monetarily by occupation and financial status rather than moral and spiritual conduct. Allah warns against this precarious state in surah Al-Takathur, “Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you. Until you visit the graveyards.” The reality – cold and difficult to swallow – reminds us that all trivial pursuits end in permanent privation. The middle path, however, can be hard to find.

Lately I’ve nurtured a radical desire to withdraw from the modern world, and become somewhat of an ascetic. Although many of my friends candidly pointed out severe flaws in this plan, I still struggle to maintain a balance between love of this world and love of the next. Shamefully I must admit that, despite all my attempts in resisting the urge, I am not immune to the sparkly consumer allure of this fashion house. I purchased my first leather handbag a few weeks ago. I can’t say that I’m any happier than I was before. But I can say with every certainty, that money would have been better spent elsewhere. In the future, it might do well for me as well as everyone else battling the pathology of consumer culture to remember the beautiful adage attributed to the prophet Jesus:

“The world is a bridge; so pass over it to the next world, but do not try to build on it.”

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  1. Abez

    October 4, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    In all due seriousness, sometimes I wonder whether we should be trading the designer purses for sheep instead.

    Narrated by Abu Said Al-Khudri (RA): Allah’s Apostle (peace be upon him) said, “A time will come that the best property of a Muslim will be sheep which he will take on the top of mountains and the places of rainfall (valleys) so as to flee with his religion from afflictions.” (Bukhari)

  2. broAhmed

    October 4, 2013 at 12:03 PM

    Loved it and hope MM continues to share such articles.

    Someone once told me that if you can separate what you want from what you need you’ll be a much happier person, and I’ve found it to be absolutely true. While everyone else lusts after the latest designer handbag, gadget, car, etc. ad nauseam, you’re sitting content with what you have because what you have is exactly what you need. Our consumerist society teaches us to conflate the two; people get this deep emotional feeling of needing xyz product (advertising is good at doing that) when in reality they merely want it.

    • broAhmed

      October 4, 2013 at 12:16 PM

      You wrote about seeking the middle path, and I should add that I think balance is the key. I upgrade my phone, buy new clothes, etc. There comes a time where you simply need new stuff. But when I upgrade my phone, it’s to a free smartphone as opposed to the newest model with a bunch of features I don’t really need. When I buy clothes, I refuse to spend hundreds of dollars on a single pair of pants/shirt/coat. I can justify spending more for a special use item like a suit, but everyday clothing no way. And it’s not like I’m wearing rags; I get compliments on what I wear. If someone is super-rich and is already donating to charity, they can go ahead and splurge on thousand dollar jackets. But that’s not the majority of us.

  3. Alfa Shaban

    October 4, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    Al Hamdu lil Laaah!

    This article finally got me to post my first comment ever on this forum.
    And all for the right reasons.

    Label/Logo Slaves, that is what we are gradually becoming as a people
    The issues herein raised are easily to associate with and the writer weaves her thoughts seamlessly through what we as people think and act by day in and out.
    May Allah grant us the strength of will to strive and win the battle against worldly materialistic desires and hunches. May HE aid guide and protect us from the forces that drive us to desire the dunya. a fleeting domain indeed.

    And for all those who make this forum and others like it available for people the world over, shukran jazeelaaa wa jazaaakumul Laaahu khayran katheeraa.

    Was salamu Alaikum Warahmatul Laah wabarakaatuhuu.

  4. ZAI

    October 4, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    I agree with the general message of the article completely.
    Rampant consumerism/materialism is a problem in todays world.
    I would like to point out one thing though: buying an expensive brand is NOT always
    the worse choice. Sometimes it is the more ETHICAL choice because cheap sweatshop
    labor is also a problem in todays world.

    Examples: You buy a pair of Berluti or John Lobb shoes instead of a brand like
    Calvin Kleins or Walmart, you know someone in France or England…a master cobbler..
    is getting paid a decent salary to make them, as opposed to cheap labor in India or Vietnam.

    Another example: A Moto X might be somewhat expensive midrange phone, but it
    is also the first smartphone being assembled in the US and you know the person
    making it is being paid better, not great, but better than people assembling Apple
    or Samsung products.

    In short, buying cheaper or lesser-brand stuff is not always the more ethical option.
    As long as your intention is not materialistic luxury or the intend to show off, sometimes
    the more expensive choice is also more ethical because of how it’s produced and also
    in some cases because it’s quality might mean it’ll last a long time, therefore doesn’t
    contribute to waste.

    • Hassen

      October 5, 2013 at 8:24 AM

      Great point, masha’Allah. We should definitely look at buying things from a moral perspective. I would avoid buying something I knew was based on inhumane treatment of workers or trashing the environment. Personally, I avoid shopping at places like walmart because of that.

    • slatif1213

      April 23, 2014 at 9:18 PM

      Salaam Zai,

      I know this response is six months late. I just noticed your comment now while reviewing this article. You’re right: if we know a product is fair trade or manufactured locally, paying a little more money is worth it. I disagree, however, that buying brands like “Berluti” or “John Lobb” solves the problem. I think it’s presumptuous of you to assume that the majority of Americans can afford those types of high-end products. And in fact, the price inflation of those products is problematic. It is a further indication of the stranglehold of consumer corporate culture. No pair shoes should ever cost hundreds of dollars!

      • ZAI

        April 23, 2014 at 10:56 PM

        W’salaam slatif,
        I did not say buying more expensive brands will solve the whole problem. We are obviously dealing with a large economic system here, many of whose facets are contributing to said problem. What I suggested is ONE positive step some people could take and pointed out that luxury should not always be conflated with waste or a lack of ethics.

        As to presumptions, I did not presume anything. I simply gave an example. I happen to know and like those brands, so mentioned them as an example. People may check out sites and organizations like the Better World Buying Guide to help them select brands that fit their own budgets while upholding moral-ethical standards.

        Finally, regarding price inflation…it is a complicated subject that doesn’t neatly fall into black and white categories:

        #1 Yes there is SOME price inflation with luxury brands, BUT…
        #2 The quality of the materials is much higher
        #3 Often you are getting hand craftsmanship, no machines
        #4 Part of the inflation goes to paying the higher salaries.

        So yes, there is some inflation…but it isn’t all superfluous or pure profit.
        Walmart is able to charge cheap prices because their labor is cheap and material/production cost is also cheap…in fact these things are so cheap that for many of their products, the case could be made that the difference in production cost to retail cost by percent is HIGHER than the production to retail cost by percent of luxury items, Must keep in mind that these “affordable” products are affordable BECAUSE of cheap labor, materials, machine labor, etc.

        In any case, I’d put the onus for this particular suggestion on wealthy or upper-middle class folks. Naturally, would not demand hardship on people who cannot afford to do this or boycott Walmart, etc.

        • slatif1213

          April 24, 2014 at 4:07 PM

          First off, I think you may have misunderstood my underlying premise. I’m not advocating to buy cheaper products because it is more ethical. I’m merely pointing out our addiction to modern consumer culture. Indeed, Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad astutely observes that shopping malls are clown-like in appearance in that it provokes our nafs, like a child grabbing for everything off the shelf, to seek endless material fulfillment. The issue runs deep in the internal and looms large in the external and won’t be resolved unless we first interrogate our modern consumer impulses.

          In regard to your recent comments, I completely understand where you’re coming from. I still must disagree, however, that buying higher price point luxury brands can be one possible alternative to this problem.

          1. Although the quality of luxury brands may be higher this is not invariably the case. For ex: the high-end handbag house, Kate Spade, has two market lines like many other fashion houses: outlet and retail. Outlet prices are significantly lower than retail but not because the product is better quality. Both lines are manufactured in the same locale and with the same materials. The difference is retail may have an extra button or shiny nameplate. As it were, luxury brands are selling names not quality.

          2. Yes you might get hand craftsmanship but that is a matter of aesthetic and today, I would say elitist preference. I’m highly skeptical as to whether these employees are paid commensurate to the high price point of these products. Again, from a moral and ethical standpoint, no pair of shoes should ever cost hundreds of dollars. Ever. And yes, it is for pure profit. Corporations do not overcharge for shoes because they benevolently wish to pay their employees fair prices.

          Vouchsafing this particular suggestion for wealthy or upper-middle class people reinforces social and financial disparities and actually perpetuates the overarching issue of capitalist consumer culture.

  5. Mahmud

    October 4, 2013 at 7:04 PM

    Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

    If a calamity befell you, spend seeking the face of Allah on your parents, spouses, children, family, and then on the poor and so on and so forth.\

    The lasting fulfillment you get from hoping that this deed was accepted infinitely outweighs any temporary feelings of relief you get from buying something for the dunya.

  6. Fatima Ariadne

    October 5, 2013 at 11:14 AM

    Salaam. I used to be surrounded by people who worshiped fashion, celebs, gorgeous boyfriend/girlfriend, and latest movies/music. Wallahi their reactions when they “lost” competitions with peers or whatever you wanna call it, when they didn’t achieve what they call the latest greatness, was just sickening. They’d act as if it’s the end of the world. There is just more to life than this shallowness.

    “And the life of this world is nothing but play and amusements” (Suraa Al An’aam : 32)

  7. ahsan arshad

    October 6, 2013 at 7:52 AM

    I agree with the comments above. unfortunately for some material things become their god. if they have the new dress they are satisfied otherwise….
    I think the balance would be to have the material if you need it but your heart is not attached to them

  8. M.G.H

    October 6, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    Shopping can actually become an addictive behavior!! Keeping balance is important, sometimes We become so busy with buying things We forget to enjoy the little things that are free like the sunset. I think that is what Shaytaan wants.

  9. berserk.hijabi

    October 6, 2013 at 6:05 PM

    Jazakallah khair,interesting article, but please if you have words like “iconoclasts” can you include your commas and apostrophes as well?

  10. Hyde

    October 6, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    Very important article. Alhamdulillah. As someone who is always well dressed (i.e. Burberry, Allen Edmonds, BOSS), I do think it is important to keep in mind, of why someone is doing what. For what reason.

  11. Samina

    October 10, 2013 at 5:24 PM

    What an article! ..struck a cord. I keep getting sucked into this consumer culture so easily. May Allah help us in resisting these temptations. We could all do quiet well even with half the stuff that we own.

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