As the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab on the international high-fashion catwalk, the 21-year-old model uses her platform to challenge stereotypes, shift the fashion industry’s gaze away from women’s bodies and redefine beauty standards. Even more notably, as a vocal advocate for the rights of refugees and Muslim women, Halima has proven that immigrants are, and will be, the making of America.
Born in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, Halima moved to Missouri, USA, aged seven years old before settling in St Cloud, Minnesota, with her mother and younger brother. In 2O16, she was the first contestant to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota Scholarship Pageant. The story went viral. Soon after, IMG (the modelling agency behind Karlie Kloss and the Hadid sisters) signed her, and her fashion week debut for Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 5 followed. Naturally, she stole the show – as she has on every runway since.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Before we met, I remember seeing your story about the pageant. Was wearing a full-body bathing suit a hard decision?
Halima Aden: The pageant organisers were fine with it. It was harder convincing my mum to let me try out for it. Miss Minnesota USA is a big deal. It’s part of the Miss Universe organisation, but for a lot of Somalis, it was their first time hearing about it. For me, it was, ‘Oh my God, here I am and all these girls are supermodels.’ But being in the company of those different girls – who looked nothing like me, whether it was shape, body or skintone – made me understand that beauty doesn’t have just one definition.
AA: Absolutely. And then in the span of one year, you went from walking on a stage for the first time to walking in the Yeezy show at New York fashion week.
HA: The pageant 1OO per cent launched my career. Without that, how would IMG have heard about me? How would Carine Roitfeld [who booked Aden’s first cover for CR Fashion Book]? I credit the pageant organisers – they gave me my first opportunity.
AA: Do you ever feel the pressure of being the first hijabi to do this or that?
HA: Well, girl, when you put it like that [laughs]. Yes, it felt like a lot of pressure at certain points. But now, I’m finally at a place where I’m seeing my work as a career, versus, ‘Wow, this kind of fell into my lap, what do I do?’ I’m not saying everything’s guaranteed, but I’m taking it more seriously. I don’t speak for every Muslim girl – I can only speak for myself – but I want to be a good role model. If I can encourage girls to stay true to themselves and not be scared to try something new, then I’ve done a good job.
AA: A lot of young women, especially of colour, [we] disqualify ourselves from spaces we feel we don’t belong in. In high school, I wanted to try out for the soccer team. I was the only hijabi. I saw all the girls in their shorts and I ended up crying and not even trying out. I felt there was no way, dressed in my hijab, I could fit into that space. Often, we see young women trying to fit into a mould. But you’re showing you can be yourself, on your own terms, and other people are just going to have to deal with that. That’s powerful, especially coming from a young, black Muslim woman. That’s fearless.
HA: My friends keep my feet on the ground. I go home and my mom doesn’t treat me like a cover model – we still live in the same apartment. The first time I went to New York, I had no experience in fashion. But having someone (my manager) with me, I can’t tell you what that did for me. I didn’t feel like I was alone; it didn’t matter what place I was in. I knew
one person I could talk to, and having that gave me the confidence to talk to other people. But I know we don’t all get to have that other person.
AA: Halima, you’re literally becoming the face of fashion right now. Do you feel like you have been, or are in, a position to be tokenised?
HA: Personally, I have never seen myself as a token, but I do think I’ve gotten a lot of recognition for being the first. That wasn’t always an easy position to be in. [Recently] I walked a show with Amina Adan. She’s another Somali girl and was also wearing the hijab, so I’m not the only one.
AA: Your fame has sky-rocketed in parallel with the popularity of modest fashion. Do you think it has staying power as a trend?
HA: Modest fashion is booming. It’s not for one race, it’s not for one ethnicity, it’s not for one religion. It’s a global thing, and I’m so excited that I can walk into a mall and find an outfit. If I feel elegant, if I feel like a queen in it, I don’t need to conform. Giving people options to dress the way they want is important. It makes sense financially for brands to recognise modest fashion. It is a growing industry and there are so many women who practise it.
AA: It’s remarkable to watch it all unfold. Right now is probably the most I’ve seen Muslim women represented in campaigns and on runways.
HA: It’s exciting that I can be like a big sister to another hijabi model.
AA: Now, girls from other backgrounds who might want to model have an example. They can look to you and be like, ‘Well, Halima did it!’
HA: My first photoshoot was incredible. It was for CR Fashion Book. Mario Sorrenti was shooting, there was Gigi [Hadid], Paris Jackson, Candice Swanepoel. I will never forget, Paris was like, ‘Girl, any time you’re in LA, just shoot me a text and we’ll hang out.’ She immediately embraced me and it was the same with Candice. She was like, ‘Don’t ever feel like you need to change yourself.’
AA: That’s so beautiful. I know one model who really opened her arms to you early on was Gigi Hadid?
HA: Yes, it was a Milan show for Alberta Ferretti. She came up to me and said, ‘Welcome to the show. If you need any advice, any tips, just come to me.’ I was freaking out – it’s Gigi! But she is super, super sweet.
AA: Now, you and Gigi are UNICEF ambassadors.
HA: I want my career to be fashion with activism – the two together, that’s perfect. I just got back from Kakuma refugee camp with UNICEF. That was life-changing; to go back to the camp I was born in. It took a lot of work to get here: the people who never forgot about us in the camp; my foster family when we first moved who helped my mum; the social workers; my teachers. Even now, it takes a lot of love and support. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have such incredible people in my life, but I thank them for everything.
AA: There is currently a Muslim [travel] ban in America, with Somalia one of the countries listed. Is your platform more important in light of this?
HA: For me, yes. As a Somali, I can say first-hand what it means to be a refugee and also an American. I’ve learned so much from this country, but I’ve also tried to do my share of giving back, whether that’s volunteering or learning about the people and cultures of this country. I think I’ve done my part. Americans do see the value in diversity, and people understand how much refugees contribute to this country.
AA: And do you feel it’s important for young women to see someone like you represented in the media?
HA: Representation is so important, especially for little girls. Every kid should see themselves represented. Girls who are coming of age and who don’t see someone that looks like them – it can be really difficult, especially to navigate what it means to be a young adult.
AA: A lot of times, all it takes is to see that reflection of ourselves to make us feel that those opportunities are possible for us. Just hearing you talk, seeing how far we’ve come, seeing the change that’s really unfolding around us, for us – it makes me so proud, like the tide is turning.