What a great time to be yourself. It’s 2018, it’s the year of female empowerment, it’s the generation of uplifting other women. We are finally getting our voices heard, and it’s not just one certain woman, it’s all of us from different backgrounds, different walks of life – it’s a great time to be a girl.” So says Halima Aden, the diminutive but dazzling 20-year-old model, activist and humanitarian - and the first hijabi woman on the cover of British Vogue.
A former refugee whose refusal to remove her hijab for the 2016 Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant catapulted her into the spotlight, and ultimately fashion's major leagues, Aden has challenged industry norms since day one. Born in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, to a Somali mother, she moved to Missouri aged seven, then finally settled in Minnesota.
After the beauty pageant, she was approached by her agency, IMG, where she laid down her conditions: wearing her hijab at all times, being styled in clothes that do not reveal any skin, a cordoned-off changing cubicle, and female-only fashion, make-up and hair assistants to work with her. To her surprise, IMG agreed to everything.
Here, she shares her opinions on everything from the importance of representation to Donald Trump.
On asking for more
I do a good job of saying what I am comfortable with. In my first meeting with [model agency] IMG, we sat down and we talked for four hours. Now, every time I go on set, they already have a good idea of what I can wear, what works. I feel like it’s my job to set the precedent for other girls, so that girls entering the industry shouldn’t be afraid to ask for a private dressing area or a female stylist. I’ve already done it. It hasn’t held me back: I dress differently from other girls, but if some skin is showing, I say, can we switch it? Doing it the right way, it’s about who you are – it’s not always about fitting in.
On representation in the media
You go through a magazine, it’s very rare to read about somebody who has the same background as you. And I’m Muslim, but it’s not about ISIS, it’s not something bad, it’s something positive. We had women in the past in our community, doctors, lawyers, those amazing women we could celebrate and look up to. But we never really had somebody in fashion. So for young girls it’s about having representation in mainstream media.
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On looking to your community for support
Growing up in a refugee camp taught me: you can be stripped of everything, stripped of title, whatever privilege you have, money, but the one thing you will never lose is that sense of community. So early on I was very social, we didn’t have cliques or groups, that’s something I was introduced to in America. I came here for 2nd grade, and I was the kid no one talked to. In their defence, I didn’t speak the language, but they don’t play together. During recess, these kids aren’t all together in one group. They’re all in tiny groups. It was so weird to me.
On the importance of dreams
I want to go back to the camp – it’s important for people to see others who have left. I want to say, ‘I’m here! I’ve lived a day in your life, but I grew older and I grew wiser and now I’m doing this’. Not – ‘Now I’m a model!’ – but still, 'I left the country'. A dream beyond the border – kids don’t see that. You don’t dream. I didn’t even learn to “dream, dream” until I was much older. That concept was so foreign. I dreamed for my mom to be happy, or to eat, realistic things – but never things that weren’t immediately in reach.
On President Donald Trump
Maybe it’s because of my mom, but I also see the positives. We’ve never had this many people fighting for Muslims, fighting for immigrants. Every comment [Trump] makes, Americans are stepping out and saying, ‘that is not us’. People are having refugee dinners, rallies, protests at airports, to make sure people know: you belong. So, even though I don’t agree with everything he says I am still very appreciative. People are making a conscious choice to stand beside us. I feel like that stirred so much anger in people. I’ve never felt more accepted, this year. That’s what my mom taught me. Turn the bad, mix it, mix it, get your emotions out of the way – and turn it into a positive.
On how modelling has changed her
I think I’ve become more aware of who I am. I feel like I’m very…cautious of what comes with this new job. That’s what people don’t understand; ‘Why are you modelling with your hijab – the whole point of hijab is to not attract attention’. But the day and age we’re living in, hijab does attract attention anyway, when you walk through a door. It doesn’t make me pass judgment on other people’s choices – if you wanna wear a mini skirt, fine. Let’s not get it lost in translation. It’s not about the clothing, it’s about the person inside. What are your values, characteristics, are you a kind person, first and foremost? That’s what we should be judging people on.
On her proudest moment
Going back to Mexico last August with Unicef was very eye-opening for me. I can relate to poverty. I talked about my journey and right away I could see even the posture of the kids – they’d lean closer. It’s one thing to have somebody who’s a missionary come and talk; and another to have someone who has been a refugee, lived on a camp for seven years. It doesn’t get easy the minute you leave the camp. It gets harder.
On her faith
This platform is very important for my story: I’m putting a face to Muslims besides what you see on the news. Even though we have bad people within the faith, there are also a lot of good people. I always say, you don’t have to 100 per cent agree on everything. I hope more people have that, you don’t have to see eye to eye with someone on every single issue. I’m not expecting that.
Oooh, I love proverbs! If people work together they can mend a crack in the sky – that’s a Somali proverb. We can solve any obstacle that’s thrown our way.