After an abrupt departure from the world of fashion in 2020, Halima Aden is back on the cover of Vogue. But this time, on her own terms, and never forgetting where she comes from.
There are not many places in the world like Chefchaouen, a tiny village stacked between the mountains of the northwest of Morocco where blue is the reigning color. Dating back to 1471, every little alley is coated with paint and layers of history, immediately transporting you to a real-life postcard, where a serene but powerful energy takes over. As a guide explains, blue was painted on the walls, floors, and steps to represent the color of the sky and to connect the city to heaven and God. It is exactly in that pathway between physical and ethereal that we felt awash in otherworldliness.
It is not a coincidence that this small but unforgettable village in Africa was selected as the backdrop for Halima Aden’s first cover shoot after she unexpectedly exited the fashion industry in 2020. Like the location that surrounds us, when I meet Aden, she is serene and warm, but there’s definitely a sense of power behind both her gaze and her inviting smile.
The relationship between Vogue Arabia and Aden is long, dating back to 2017, when, for our fourth edition, we invited the new face to become the first ever veiled personality on the cover of Vogue. The project received unparalleled acclaim, with hijabi women around the world finally feeling represented on the front page of a publication with the impact of Vogue. Unapologetic and fearless since day one, the Somali refugee came onto our radar the year prior, after making a splash at the Miss Minnesota USA competition, where she was the first contestant to participate in the event wearing a burkini and a veil. And while today there might be some more information about modest dressing and the women who wear it – from politician Ilhan Omar to Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad – it was not the case back then.
The following years were filled with incredible success, trips around glitzy red carpets, and glamorous fashion weeks. But, in 2020, something felt terribly wrong – Aden found herself at a crossroads where her faith, her mental health, and her career were no longer compatible. To announce this, the model went straight to Instagram, posting dozens of consecutive, bombastic stories featuring her past fashion shoots, campaigns, and covers, where she felt that her hijab was not respected, nor her identity as a Muslim woman. “Before the pandemic I was too hard on myself. And the truth is that 2019 was the busiest year of my career,” Aden reflects. “To give you insight, in one month I had 45 flights, and not one day to spend with my family. I’m grateful because that was the reason why my platform grew the way it did. But then, when the pandemic happened, everything paused, and I’m someone that likes to always keep busy. During lockdown, there were no distractions, so I had to be at one with my own mind, and that was tough. I thought that I hadn’t done enough when it comes to showcasing the hijab in a proper way; I thought it went off the deep end and I could no longer relate to this identity of wearing a hijab. Towards the end of my career, in my photoshoots, my hijab became more adventurous… It was very experimental, and I confess I also had a part to play in that. Nobody forced me to put jeans on my head instead of a traditional veil, to do a shoot being fully decked out with jewelry, and very sexy even though it was modest…”
Besides the personal and religious beliefs that made her exit the industry, Aden also underlines the importance of discussing the work conditions of models in general, whether they are hijabi or not. “This is not just a discussion around Muslim girls. It’s about how we should treat all models,” she says. “I think that a big part of the reason why I quit was the lack of privacy backstage. I was mortified early on in my career when I realized some shows had just clothing racks to separate the girls from the public, from male photographers, from the people bringing food… For me, as a newbie, I had my own box, literally one box just for myself… It was awkward and just didn’t feel right,” she explains. “When you come from the refugee community I hail from, the one thing I can’t stand is when the perks are not applied to everybody else. When the other models came to me to ask if they could use my small dressing box, I remember thinking, ‘Why can’t they just create a covered space for all of us?’ Even Walmart has changing rooms; one for the girls and one for the guys… Of course, we never complained, because we are too scared to make a fuss and be replaced. If you speak up, you are labeled difficult.”
Although Aden’s decision to call out the fashion industry was received with excitement by the general media, I ask if she regrets the way her message was delivered. After all, the stylists, publications, clients, and editors she singled out on her posts were also the people giving her a platform, helping her to build a career when she was an unknown model. And many of them made an effort to protect Aden the best way they knew or could, trying to navigate the complexities of the hijab, creating special dressing boxes, allowing her to be accompanied by a chaperone, and so on. “My message resonated with people because I was honest, but I was also young. If I could go back, I wouldn’t have delivered it on Instagram. I really wouldn’t have,” she answers. “I do feel bad, and I feel like I could have been gentler. But fashion is a cruel business to be a part of, and sometimes you just have to say it like it is. You can’t be so scared, because other people are not afraid to tell you ‘You’re not good enough, you’re doing this wrong.’ Tell me the last time a model went on Instagram to quit or to call out the industry… That same night, The Guardian, BBC World News, all these major outlets were writing my story.”
Now we see Aden’s story being written again, but on her own terms, and right in front of our eyes. Wearing a delicate, white Chanel lace dress (with an underbody and a classic veil, of course), she is posing next to a beautiful Moroccan door – blue, as everything else around us. If modeling is like riding a bicycle, she clearly hasn’t forgotten how to pose for the camera. To return to this place of confidence and control, Aden tells me that she spent the past years working on her mental health, “unpacking things,” and doing weekly therapy sessions. “I always thought, ‘Oh, I don’t need that’… It turns out that the people who say this are the ones that need it the most. Now, I’m just at a different place in my life, where I feel very protected, I feel very loved and cared for. I’m really going at my pace, which wasn’t the case as a model.”
On the topic of mindfulness, Aden expresses regret to recognize that visiting a therapist is a luxury that not everyone has access to, especially the younger generations. Therefore, she is collaborating with Snapchat for the project Club Unity, which encourages Gen Z voices to open up about their own mental health journeys, empowering them to embrace this important aspect of their lives. “Honestly, it is a privilege speaking to a therapist, and it is unfortunate many people can’t afford it. In my case, this was never the option. Under the influence of my mom, the solution was always to run back to God, pray your five daily prayers, fast, wake up at 2am to journal. But at one point, I felt like I needed somebody who could understand everything that I was going through.”
Besides classic therapy, Aden underlines the importance of becoming a more mindful society, something she believes can also be achieved through bonding with family and community. “When I was growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya, I might have been just a child, but I remember the laughter; I remember my mom being so stressed, but at the same time, so full of light and joy, and the bliss on her face. And this is in a refugee camp… I realized that because there was such a strong sense of community, there really wasn’t a need for therapy. Now, in America, we are very isolated, and I feel we don’t do enough of a good job of discussing where we’re at.”
While modeling took a back seat for Aden, this doesn’t mean that she is not busier than ever, working on different projects that make her eyes sparkle. Still very much a part of the fashion world, in 2024 she is all set to release a ready-to-wear collection in collaboration with a Jordanian and Muslim entrepreneur, a project she prefers not to reveal too much of for now. There is also an ongoing partnership with the Turkish modestwear e-tailer Modanisa, where Aden doubles as global ambassador while also designing turbans and headscarves. “They were one of the brands that reached out and really supported me when I decided to quit,” she remembers. “This past year was amazing, as our collection sold out right away. It was exciting to be in the creative seat, fully working on vision boards, casting of models, campaign concepts, packaging, and even the small notes that go with each purchase… It made me appreciate all the work behind a brand even more.”
The two other projects Aden is excited to reveal showcase her range as creative and a humanitarian. In partnership with Vita Coco, she wrote a children’s book targeting communities being supported by the coconut water brand, which recently built 30 classrooms in the Philippines for youngsters with less resources. When Aden visited the locations, she realized she didn’t want to come back empty-handed, and started typing three versions of an inspiring and empowering children’s book. For the big screen, following Aden’s initial cinema experience executive producing the 2019 film I Am You by Afghan director Sonia Nassery Cole, there’s already a movie script registered at the Writers Guild of America. “I will tell my agent to send you a copy, so you see I’m not joking,” she laughs. “I noticed that there are gaps in the movie industry, and there are not many Muslim writers, showcasing what a modern Muslim woman is like. It’s easy for people to have misconceptions of Muslim females when they only see on the news very extreme examples of women in a hijab. We are not oppressed. We have dreams and ambitions, and we make mistakes. We’re human, we’re not perfect, we’re flawed. We are so misunderstood…” she says regretfully. “I’m aware I’m not in Hollywood, but I know what I’ve been able to accomplish in fashion, and the truth is that nothing is impossible. So, you must dream, you have to believe in yourself – and I do believe in myself. I have this newfound confidence in my ability and my story, and film is the perfect medium to share it with the world.”
Perhaps the work that still takes center stage in Aden’s universe is her role in inspiring refugees. Born in the Kakuma camp in Kenya, where she resided until she was relocated to Minnesota at seven years old, the journey of Halima Aden is a success story that inspires millions of people forced to flee their home countries. Just Kakuma counts 185 000 displaced people, from 14 different nations. When I ask what it really means to be a refugee, she takes a couple of seconds to gather her thoughts. “That’s a hard one… But I would say scars and smiles. The reason why I say scars and smiles is there’s a lot of trauma that comes with being a refugee. A lot of the work that I was doing in therapy was unpacking some of those experiences.”
It is in this context that Aden has been collaborating with the platform RefuSHE, “a community for refugee girls by refugee girls.” And while she describes the project, I notice she mentions the word hope more than once in the same sentence. But how do you feed this “hope” when you have barely anything physical to eat, I wonder. “I think that when people have lost it all, they cling tight to hope. They cling tight to that one day. Maybe, if I pray hard enough, I will have that one opportunity that’s going to change our lives,” she says. “Only 1% of refugees get to leave the camps and go to a developed country like America. Only 1%. But if there is that 1% chance people are going to have hope, they will continue to pray, and to daydream about a better future. The reality is that no parent would put their child on a boat, to cross an ocean, if it wasn’t an extreme situation. Sometimes, when people have experienced the worst that life has to offer, they become grateful and appreciative for the tiniest win of everyday life. The way that we, in America, don’t necessarily always appreciate.”
Originally published in the May 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Amine Jreissati
Makeup: Karima Maruan
On-ground production: Nashta Production and Sarah Nadjar
Photography assistant: Malak Housni
Producer: Sam Allison
Special thanks: Moroccan National Provincial Tourist Office