It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and I’m heading to the 148th floor of the world’s tallest building to meet Halima Aden. The only hijab-wearing model to sign to a major agency is in Dubai for the first time (She’s only been to Abu Dhabi previously) to walk for Modanisa in the opening show of the debut Dubai Modest Fashion Week.
When I arrive to the ticket booth in Dubai Mall to meet the group of modest influencers (including the first hijab-wearing model to appear on an H&M campaign Mariah Idrissi, London-based modest blogger Habiba da Silva, and Aden) in the first phase of the Dubai tour organized by DMFW ahead of the shows, it’s hard not to spot the Somali beauty. Despite the throngs of tourists and families eager to embark to the top of the Burj Khalifa, Aden stands out — and it isn’t just the vivid orange and yellow overlay paired with a seamoss-green turban she’s wearing. With her regal stature, out-of-this-world beauty, and radiating disposition, the 20-year-old looked as though she’d just been copied from an editorial and pasted into the crowded aisles queuing for the elevator.
As I extend my hand to introduce myself, she embraces me as if I’m an old friend she hasn’t seen in a while. She spends the next minute mulling over the pronunciation of my name to make sure she’s saying it right. Mindful with her every interaction, the Kenyan-born model, who admits she was bullied in school, makes sure to stop and hug each and every fan that approaches her for a photograph. It’s finally our turn to get into the elevator, and Aden is visibly excited. “I am in love with this city. Dubai gives me so much hope, it represents everything a society should be proud of. It’s like my dream city, everything feels so surreal. It’s like I’m in my own video game,” she muses. “Some days are really hard, I’m jet-lagged or tired, or I just don’t want to do it. But then I remember how blessed I am, and how I’m the only girl wearing a hijab signed to one of the top modeling agencies in the world” she says.
Indeed, its been quite the whirlwind year for the boundary-breaking model, who first made headlines for competing in a Miss USA state pageant wearing a hijab and burkini (it was never done before) before signing with IMG Models. “I never saw a girl wearing a hijab walking the runways or on magazine covers,” she says. “This year, there are seven Somali girls competing at the Miss Minnesota pageant right now, and I couldn’t be more proud. I’m so happy that I could be the one to help blaze that trail.” A photograph of seven, smiling young women (all but one wearing a headscarf) is the most recent image you’ll find on her @kinglimaa Instagram page, accompanied with the caption “I’m so proud of these young women for competing at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant this year ❤️ This moment was a highlight for me ❤️🙌🏿 shout out to my beautiful QUEENS.”
Though her mother and aunties were against her modeling (beauty pageants and runways are not traditionally part of her culture although supermodels Iman, Yasmin Warsame, and Waris Dirie also hail from Somalia,) the daring model made her New York Fashion Week debut wearing a fuzzy, floor-length coat during the Yeezy Season 5 presentation, before walking for Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti in Milan. “Naomi Campbell is supposed to teach me how to walk,” reveals the model as she recalls her first time on a catwalk. “I remember how runways in the ’90’s— the models had so much personality. They were always smiling, and that’s what I love about Modest Fashion Week. It’s just so fun.”
Aden, who was personally invited to open the two-day event by the co-founders Franka Soeria and Özlem Şahin, had previously walked at London Modest Fashion Week last April. “We actually met Halima before she got signed to IMG,” Soeria says to Vogue.me. “Before she got signed, we knew her and we direct messaged her. When IMG signed her, we invited her to London, and she said, ‘of course,’ so when we asked her to walk for us in Dubai, she was more than happy to join,” Şahin adds.
The Vogue Arabia cover girl, who has also done campaigns for the likes of Nike and Sem Sem, admits “Yeah, there’s more hijabs on the runway but there is a good balance of girls who are wearing it and girls who aren’t.” Aden adds, “What the world needs to realize is that you don’t have to wear a hijab to be modest. I have friends who aren’t Muslim, who are very modest and who don’t wear the hijab. It’s not a one-size fits all term.” In fact, when it comes to the word “modest” the model prefers to eschew it from her vocabulary all-together. “What does it imply when you’re not veiled or you look the opposite? It’s not a compliment,” she declares.
There’s no denying that Aden is somewhat of a local hero in her hometown of Minnesota for her bravery and meteoric rise. In fact, if you go to the Somali Museum of Minnesota situated in Minneapolis (The Minneapolis area is home to the largest Somali immigrant and refugee population in the United States) you will find an entire exhibition dedicated to her, in which the June edition of Vogue Arabia is proudly on display. “I donated my magazine to the museum,” she reveals, asking me if I could get her another copy. “I mean, it’s one thing to have a Vogue Arabia cover, and it’s another to have it immortalized in a museum.” Her exhibition is featured alongside a collection of artifacts from nomadic society in Somalia that serve to preserve and celebrate the treasures of the African country.
Once at the top of the Burj Khalifa, Aden is mesmerized by the never-ending 360 views of the impressive Dubai skyline. As we wander around the crowds, she is constantly stopped by eager young fans who want to take a selfie with her. Though most people would naturally feel overwhelmed, I watch incredulously as the reposeful model stands over 20,000 ft on top of the world, relishing the moment.