Wearing the hijab is a deeply personal choice, one that Muslim women make for a number of reasons. Halima Aden, the first hijab-wearing model on international runways, stresses the level of consideration. “It’s a choice that every women makes for herself but it is also important to know why you are making that choice,” she says, speaking to Vogue.me ahead of the opening of de Young Museum’s “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibition. The star added that her reasons may not necessarily be the same as someone else’s. “Everybody has their own reasoning for doing it.”
The Somali-American model, who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, started wearing the Islamic veil in 2005, when she first immigrated to America with her mother and brother. Her reason? She saw her mother wearing it, and “wanted to be just like her.” “I started young, but there are women who waited until they were in their 60s and 70s to put one on,” says the model, who had her hijab written into her modeling contract to ensure she would never feel pressured to remove it.
However, the 21-year-old ensures that when she shares her story of why she wears the hijab, she is always careful to mention the fact that it is her personal interpretation of what the hijab means. Translated from Arabic, the term “hijab” literally translates to “cover” or “partition.” In practice, wearing the hijab corresponds to a principle of modesty—a global way of dressing that is unique to everyone’s individual style.
“What’s fascinating is, because Islam is a global religion, Muslims are very diverse and comprise a number of countries, nationalities, races, and cultures. If you look at different countries, you’re going to see each woman wearing her hijab differently,” she explains, using the contrast between her and her mother’s generation as an example to drive home her point. “For instance, my mom wears the jilbab, which is a long version of a hijab that hangs down to your knees. Meanwhile, my aunt wears a burqa, which conceals everything but her eyes. Then you have me, my cousins, and the younger women in my family that will wear a headscarf and turbans. We also have some relatives that don’t even wear a hijab, and that’s totally fine,” she says. “I think that is the beauty in wearing the hijab. You not only get to decide how and where and when, you also get to decide which style, because there are many.”
The boundary-breaking model first made headlines after competing in a Miss USA state pageant wearing a hijab and burkini (it had never been done before) before signing with IMG Models. 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 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.
Her family weren’t the only ones originally against Aden pursuing modeling as a career. “It was scary and I definitely did get a little bit of backlash from both the Muslim community and the American community,” she recalls, admitting that America’s Muslim community has since warmed up to the idea. “Just a year later there were seven Somali girls competing at the Miss Minnesota pageant. I felt so emotional seeing how the community accepted it and embraced it,” she says. “I saw parents in the audience just proud, and like this is something that’s not necessarily our culture but because I wasn’t afraid to be the first, those women now have a chance to take part in it.”
The American-Somali community are not the only ones embracing the idea of a hijab-wearing model. In fact, a number of major brands have been making an effort to be more inclusive and diverse in their runways and ad campaigns, including Gap, which recently featured a hijab-wearing model in its kids-focused “Gap to School” advert. Meanwhile, on the international runways, designers and casting agents have made improved strides to be more inclusive. Fall 2018 Fashion Month was notably racially diverse, and featured a number of hijab-wearing models, including Amina Adan, Kadija Diawara, and Ikram Abdi Omar. Additionally, head coverings took over recent runways, showing up in the form of tightly wound, hijab-like garments at Marc Jacobs, babushka-inspired head wraps at Gucci, and black scarves paired with a baker-boy caps at Dior.
Outside of the runways, there are major exhibitions in the works that aim to shed a light on Muslim fashion. San Francisco’s de Young Museum is set to showcase a large-scale exhibition that explores “the complex and diverse nature of Muslim fashions and current modest dress codes” for Fall 2018. Entitled “Contemporary Muslim Fashions”, the six-month-long show will look at garments and styles from across the world, including interpretations of the hijab by Muslim and European designers, such as Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana, to name a few. Meanwhile, another portion of the exhibition is set to explore streetwear and sportswear with Islamic inspirations, such as the innovative, award-winning Nike hijab and the polarizing burkini. Ahead of the show, Aden, was actually handpicked to model a selection of modest ensembles that will feature in a hotly anticipated new exhibition, in a series of portraits photographed by Sebastian Kim.
“When I first found out that an art museum was putting together a show on Muslim fashion I was a little surprised,” admits the Somali beauty. “But I was also thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing. This is what little girls need.’ I thought about when I visited a museum for the first time, and learned about Italian history… It’s really an incredible time that people will have an opportunity to learn about not just Muslim fashion, but the people and the women in particular.”
However, despite the recent efforts being made, Aden believes the fashion industry still has a way to go. “I think the industry could improve its inclusivity by allowing models from different backgrounds to have a spot at the table without conforming,” says Aden. “You have to keep in mind that these magazines and these editorials—little girls everywhere around the world will get the chance to see them. I grew up in a refugee camp where there were no TVs but I still saw pictures and magazine ads. You still see that stuff even in the most remote and unexpected places. So I think you want women and girls looking at these images… to feel like they can connect. It’s about making women feel like they’re visible, like that their stories are being heard, like that their struggles are being shared, and they’re being empowered through images.”
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