22-year-old Halima Aden is the smiling force breaking down stereotypes of oppression and working to give Muslim women visibility in the fashion industry and beyond. The model and activist was born in a refugee camp in Kenya to Somali parents and moved to Minnesota in the US at the age of seven (where she still lives today). She has never compromised her values to fit into the mainstream ideal of fashion and chooses to wear her hijab with pride. We are honoured to speak with our ninth cover star, UNICEF ambassador and agent of change about her journey, inspirations, approach to style and plans for the future.
You are a role model and inspiration to so many. Who and what inspires you, both personally and professionally?
I have so many inspirations. First and foremost, my mom. She fled the Somali Civil War, raised my siblings and me in a refugee camp, and then brought us to a country where she didn’t speak the language or know anyone. She is the true definition of resiliency and my main source of inspiration. Professionally, I would say I am inspired by the social media messages I get from people around the world telling me to keep doing what I’m doing, that I’m changing the narrative, that I’m making a difference... That is what motivates me. It’s also what keeps me up at night because I know I was given the golden ticket to come to America and I don’t want to miss any opportunity or take anything for granted. Any time I’m feeling tired or defeated, I remember that there are children I knew at my refugee camp who are still living there. I want to succeed and work hard for all of them. I’m one of the lucky ones who got out and I owe it to them and my mom to make the most of every day“I wanted to emulate my mother’s beauty, which is why I started wearing the hijab. Not all Muslim women wear the hijab; it’s a choice. For me, it’s how I feel most comfortable and beautiful.
The modest fashion industry is estimated to be worth 300 billion globally but we are yet to see even a fraction of the level of representation that reflects this. What would you like to see more of and what do you think fashion brands and image makers need to do to respond to this discrepancy?
I think the industry has come a long way. If you think about it, less than three years ago, you didn’t see a hijab-wearing girl on the cover of major fashion magazines or on the runways walking for high fashion designers, and now there are several of us. I’ve always said, “I may be the first, but if there isn’t a second, third, fourth then what’s the point.” I am so happy that it’s now the norm to see a hijab in the fashion space. I do think that brands and designers are placing value on representation. Because the modest fashion industry is so lucrative, designers know they need to have someone modelling their clothes who the modest market can relate to. If you don’t see someone who looks like you wearing an outfit, it’s hard to envision that it could work for you. Modest shoppers want to see someone that resonates with them. Women of all different cultures, religions and backgrounds around the world want to dress fashionably so it’s important to appeal to all of them. Modesty isn’t a trend; it’s been around forever and has really stood the true test of time. Modesty will never go out of style.
“I wanted to emulate my mother’s beauty, which is why I started wearing the hijab. Not all Muslim women wear the hijab; it’s a choice. For me, it’s how I feel most comfortable and beautiful."
The western world and media love to ascribe their own meaning to the hijab, often with negative connotations of the suppression of women. What does the hijab represent to you as a proud and empowered Muslim woman?
I wanted to emulate my mother’s beauty, which is why I started wearing the hijab. Not all Muslim women wear the hijab; it’s a choice. For me, it’s how I feel most comfortable and beautiful. I am confident when I’m wearing my scarf. Not just because it’s a way that I practice my Islamic faith, but it’s a fashion accessory. It’s probably the most important part of my look each day... when I’m working and when I’m just out and about with friends. Usually my outfits are dictated by what scarf I’m wearing... it’s the focal point of my wardrobe each day. As far as negative connotations, I would just encourage everyone to get to know your neighbours and open yourself up to learning about people who look different than you do... I think people would find we are all actually more alike than we are different. I think we are seeing powerful Muslim women in spaces they have never before been seen in, whether that’s politics, entertainment, business, which is an important part of overcoming the stereotypes of opression.
The Miss Minnesota pageant was an obvious turning point in your life. It was a powerful statement and something that could easily be categorised as an act of activism. I read that you actually just wanted to compete in the pageant without changing the rules and still uphold your values; you said, “The stereotype is that Muslims want to come to this country and they want to change the rules, they want to change everything. That’s the opposite of what I want. I just want to participate.” Do you see yourself as an activist? What does activism mean to you?
Yes, the pageant is what launched my career. I competed in the pageant and did it on my own terms. I didn’t conform and no one expected me to. The pageant organisers welcomed me with open arms. On the backdrop of the pageant stage, there was a sign that read “Confidently Beautiful” and that’s exactly how I felt wearing my hijab and burkini, a modest fully-covered swimsuit.I do consider myself an activist. I’ve never wanted to be in fashion if I couldn’t combine it with activism. At my first sit down meeting with IMG Models, they really wanted to get to know me and understand what drives me. At that meeting, I mentioned that my ultimate goal was to work with UNICEF, an organisation that helped me as a child in a refugee camp. Since then, I’ve gone on three field visits with UNICEF seeing the work they do first-hand, in countries where the world’s most vulnerable children need basic care. I’ve gone to Capitol Hill with UNICEF to urge my country’s leaders to support the work that they are doing. A child in need knows no politics. Because the cause is so personal to me — it’s so real — my commitment is unwavering.
Have your mother’s feelings changed about your choice to pursue modelling? Has she come around to your role in the world?
While I’m not sure that fashion is a career she will ever understand, I do know she is proud that it has allowed me to do something that she understands very well — [my] work with UNICEF. She is illiterate, but she can definitely read and know what the letters in UNICEF are, and what they mean and represent. I had the opportunity to collaborate with a brand and launch a scarf and turban line this year [Halima x Modanisa], which has been exciting for my mom to see. She’s happy that I’ve been able to combine fashion with faith.
"I think we are seeing powerful Muslim women in spaces they have never before been seen in, whether that’s politics, entertainment, business, which is an important part of overcoming the stereotypes of opression."
When we met, I was struck by your incredible energy, positivity and sense of self — where does this come from? Was this something you were born with or developed growing up in the camp and through the challenges you’ve been through?
Thank you! I’ve always been a little out there — never shy. It is thanks to my experience living in the refugee camp that I just kind of find companionship with all sorts of people. My mom used to move us around the camp all of the time. When our home would wash away due to rain, we would move to another location, so I was constantly with different groups of people. Making new friends was something I had to do because of our situation so now it just comes naturally to me. There were no cliques at the camp so that was a shock when I moved to the US and certain kids played together... in the camp, we all played together.