Over a breakfast of egg white omelettes at Morocco’s iconic Royal Mansour hotel in Marrakech, talk turns to US President Trump’s attempts to impose a travel ban on residents of select Muslim countries from entering the US. It’s a topic that unites all three of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia’s cover stars; Arab models who regularly crisscross the globe for work. Shanina Shaik, the 26-year-old Australian born to a Saudi/Pakistani father; Moroccan Hind Sahli, 26; and 30-year-old Hanaa Ben Abdesslem from the small village of Nabeul in Tunisia. Together the three offer a visual representation of a united Arabia.
“Shaik is an Arabic name and I always get a full security check,” says Shanina of her experiences navigating airports, as the trio exchange tales of overzealous border control, laborious visa bureaucracy and being subjected to heightened security measures as a result of their Arab heritage. “I remember travelling from Barcelona to the US when I was 19 and I was stopped from boarding the plane,” she says, “I was crying, I was so upset and I felt that they were judging me from my name.”
It speaks to the pride and integrity of all three that rather than adopt a Westernised moniker they stand by their identity. “If I want to change my name maybe it will be easier for me,” Hanaa shrugs, dismissing the thought with a firm “no”. “It’s my father’s name and I am proud of it,” Shanina adds. Indeed, when the Victoria’s Secret alumna marries her fiancé next year she plans to take a double-barrelled surname. “I want to keep it,” she says of her last name Shaik, “it’s part of who I am.”
Often relegated to the role of consumer in the fashion world, Arab women have frequently been side-lined by the industry. “I’ve always had a struggle with finding my place,” Shanina reveals, “I was up for an amazing editorial about diversity and I didn’t get the job because they didn’t know what heritage to put me under. That really sucks.” Browsing Duty Free on her way to Morocco she was struck by the total absence of Middle Eastern faces fronting skin care and fragrance imagery. “You don’t see them and it would be great to see,” she urges.
From left: Hind wears: Dress, Dhs25,400, Elie Saab. Shoes, Dhs2,000, Céline. Hanaa wears: Bodysuit with skirt, Dhs12,925; Necklace, Dhs3,975; Rings, Dhs925, all Elie Saab. Shoes, Dhs3,990, Christian Louboutin.
Ellen von Unwerth
As the first – and only – Muslim woman to front a global luxury beauty campaign when she was signed to Lancôme in 2012, Hanaa Ben Abdesslem delights in making history. “In the future people will remember that I did this and I will be the role model for other girls,” says the model who was also the first Arab woman to appear in the Pirelli calendar.
Now, at a time when people are reviewing attitudes towards tolerance and diversity, the fashion and beauty industries are opening their eyes to this under-represented swathe of the globe. The recent signing by power-agency IMG of hijab-wearing Somali-American model Halima Aden, who made her fashion week debut at Kanye West’s Yeezy show last month, would suggest so. “Halima is a huge inspiration. She is an amazing role model for Muslim women – and all women – all over the world,” enthuses Shanina, adding, “Giving Halima a place to shine and inspire the world is amazing. I applaud her. She wants to show the world that you can be a Muslim, or a refugee, wear a hijab and conquer so much, even in the fashion world.”
Hind Sahli, the third member of Bazaar’s anniversary issue triumvirate, is passionate about changing the narrative that women should be restricted to the domestic sphere. “I grew up in a country where the woman’s supposed to get married, have kids and that’s it. I never wanted to do that,” says the 26-year-old who left her home in Casablanca in 2009 at the age of 19 to pursue her dream of a modelling career. “Halima gives hope to other women that they can achieve what they want to. I want to be independent and I want other women to know that they can be independent too. I feel sad when certain women don’t think they can do better. They’re in a little box and they don’t see the outside.” She is lucky, she says, in that her family have always supported her.
“In Morocco your brothers always want to be the boss. They are worse than parents,” she grins. Fortunately, Hind’s three male siblings – she also has an older sister – have always supported her career choice. “My brothers are so cool. They gave me hell as a kid but it’s all good memories,” laughs the model who has appeared in a Miu Miu advertising campaign and walked for designers including Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta, and now lives in New York’s hip Tribeca district. Hind’s late father was a policeman, while her mother, who is veiled, raised the five children in a firm but fair Muslim household. “I love my parents to bits,” says Hind. “For a very, very long time I thought my dad didn’t care about what I was doing and then one day I found a box next to his bed containing all of my magazines. It was so cute,” she smiles. “I don’t just want to be the super-successful girl, super-rich or whatever. I want to do something that actually inspires and helps others. My parents are my motivation for life.”
“You can see from his eyes that he is really proud,” Hanaa chimes in of her own father in Tunisia, where she is using her independently-earned income to build a house. “There are no girls in Tunis doing this,” she explains, proudly displaying pictures of the modern construction on her phone.
Shanina wears: Dress, Dhs14,630, Simone Rocha. Hat, Dhs1,800, Eugenia Kim at Ounass. Shoes, Dhs2,000, Céline. Hind wears: Dress, Dhs13,260, Simone Rocha. Hat, Dhs1,850, Eugenia Kim at Ounass. Shoes, Dhs3,900, Céline
Ellen von Unwerth
For Shanina, who has clocked up four turns on the Victoria’s Secret catwalk, parental approval is likewise an inherent part of the package. “People ask me, ‘Woah, how did your father feel about you doing Victoria’s Secret?’ And I’m like, ‘Huh..?’,” she says, adding, “My dad does not look at me and think anything less because I do Victoria’s Secret. He knows that I work hard and that I’m a respectful woman. He is happy because I am happy. It’s as simple as that. It’s just a father-daughter thing.”
It was at school in Australia where Shanina developed the resilience that would go on to serve her well in the often brutal world of modelling, after she was targeted by bullies due to her skin colour and distinctive surname. She says the racial slurs that she endured as a girl, “Really hurt, which kills your soul as a young child.” Anti-bullying is a cause she feels passionate about and hopes to lend her support to in the future. “It definitely made me stronger,” she says, drawing positivity from a period that saw her temporarily withdraw from classes.
“My advice to any girl who wants to begin in the modelling world is that she needs a thick skin and a great support system because you are definitely going to hear a lot more nos than yeses,” Shanina counsels. “I remember going for a casting in Paris and they just saw my skin colour and turned me away,” she recalls, “of course I cried.”
Recognising that diversity means embracing all races, skin colours and sizes, Shanina applauds plus-size model Ashley Graham for challenging industry-prescribed norms. “Women come in different shapes and sizes,” she says, pointing out that despite starting her career walking in high fashion shows – most memorably for Chanel’s Paris-Bombay collection in 2012 – by the age of 22 her physique called time on a catwalk career. “I started getting a womanly body, I started getting the child-bearing hips,” she laughs, “It doesn’t work for runway, which is okay.” Looking ahead, a career in film beckons and she makes her big screen debut in this year’s reboot of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise. Building a strong team around her has brought Shanina to a place where she is happy to be in the driving seat of her profession, explaining, “I think what makes a great model is being your own boss.”
Forging longevity from a career that rarely stretches beyond a decade is key for all three of Bazaar’s cover stars. To this end, Hanaa signed up to become one of three judges, alongside Beirut-born fashion designer Reem Acra, on Dubai TV’s Fashion Star. For season two, currently on air, she says that her confidence has matured, allowing her to mix her native Tunisian Arabic with the Lebanese dialect she mastered with a vocal coach over two months of training. “In the first season I was scared of the camera. I am not a talking girl like Heidi,” Hanaa laughs of the effervescent model-turned-host of American Project Runway. This time round, however, she is actively steering her on-screen persona, even building a clause into the contract granting control over her hair and make-up. “I don’t like the bling bling, it’s not me,” smiles the model who keratins the kinks out of her naturally curly hair into a sleek, fierce bob. When she broke into modelling under the guidance of her Saudi manager Sophie Galal, Hanaa’s unexpected pixie crop soon became her calling card. Booking her exclusively for his spring/summer 2011 show, the then Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci took a razor to Hanaa’s classically long locks, serving to lend her wide-set eyes an otherworldly aspect. “I had to go to Tunis,” Hanaa recalls of returning home for the first time post-haircut, “in the airport people looked at me like I was King Kong!” Now she is proud of inspiring Arab girls who want to break out from traditional parameters of beauty. “Many girls from the Middle East – from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait – send me pictures and videos of themselves with shaved hair,” she enthuses. Living in Dubai for two-month stints while filming Fashion Star, Hanaa favours the clean lines of Solace London in order to make a statement at the region’s lavish soirées. “When I see people like this,” she says, miming big hair and the train of an extravagant gown, “of course I want to be the opposite.
Shanina wears: Dress, Dhs11,270, Fendi. Choker, Dhs8,085, Alexander McQueen. Shoes, Dhs3,100, Dolce & Gabbana. Hind wears: Dress, Dhs9,020; Shoes, Dhs3,370, both Fendi. Earrings, Dhs1,700, Dolce & Gabbana. Rings, Dhs925, Elie Saab
Ellen von Unwerth
Yet while Hanaa eschews the glitz and glamour of modern-day Arabia, she is keen to preserve the Berber heritage with all its attendant pageantry. Prompted by an image taken of her by Paolo Roversi, she is exploring the heritage of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco that celebrates the femmes berbères with their striking tattoos, headdresses and jewellery. And despite the absence of a ring on the relevant finger, she has already commissioned a traditional Tunisian bridal outfit crafted from real gold beads, which will take five years to complete and that she plans to display eventually.
LA-resident Shanina is also knee-deep in wedding plans, although she has a more concrete deadline to work to, having become engaged to Greg Andrews, aka DJ Ruckus, on a private island in the Bahamas in December 2015. The couple plan to return to the island – where he proposed following a whirlwind eight-month romance – for their nuptials early next year. Owned by Greg’s cousin Lenny Kravitz, the beachside setting lends itself to a simple gown, she says, which will complement her hexagonal diamond engagement ring by Lorraine Schwartz.
Increasingly, everything these women do will be documented on social media, which is where the couple announced their engagement. “I book more jobs now because of my Instagram, because they’ve seen my personality,” Shanina says, “And when I go to jobs and see the references it’s all Instagram photos of myself.”
She applauds the young generation of modelling stars whose savvy social media strategy has propelled them into the embrace of high fashion, such as Kendall Jenner and the Hadid sisters. “Gigi and Bella Hadid are the sweetest, kindest girls ever. I can tell that their mother and father have raised them so well. They are so humble and down-to-earth.” Of this new wave of socially-connected style stars, she says, “They’re smart girls. They’ve created their world and made jobs for themselves.”
Alongside the opportunities that social media brings, it also opens the doors of communication to those who, like her playground bullies, choose to spread hate. “I’m a very emotional person but I’ve learnt over time that it’s just, like, whatever,” Shanina says of shrugging off negative comments. “It’s that simple thing: if you’ve nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all. And if you don’t like my stuff then don’t follow me,” she adds.
Hind admits that her Instagram game needs work. “I thought it was a retouching app,” she laughs, “that’s how terrible I am.” She reveals that she can be frustrated by social media’s surface-driven rewards system, explaining, “Certain people don’t deserve as much attention as we give them. Then there are people we actually need in this world and nobody pays attention to them.” That said, she views the medium as an important tool for opening the eyes of Arab women to opportunities beyond societal confines. “Social media has been good for this in countries like Morocco,” she says.
Hind wears: Dress, Dhs31,800, Valentino. Headscarf, stylist’s own. Earrings, Dhs1,650, Céline. Boots, Dhs6,410, Christian Louboutin
Ellen von Unwerth
As a Moroccan living in the US, Hind is disbelieving of the presidential election result. “I come from a culture where women are viewed as less than men,” says the model, who harbours ambitions to move into fashion design, “So that a developed country should vote for somebody whose views are 50 years behind is a shock for me. This is somebody who doesn’t respect women.”
Shanina also mourns the glib manner in which equality has been side-lined. “Every morning when I wake up there is something new and horrible to read about,” she says. “With Barack Obama we created an amazing place with equal rights and it’s like we’ve gone five steps backwards with Donald Trump. We’re in a place where everyone is so diverse and multicultural and you’re going to separate people? We’re not united right now. It’s really, really beyond sad.”
On the plus side, all three applaud the renewed spirit of political engagement that current upheaval has engendered in the young generation. “I’ve never seen so many millennial kids so involved in politics. Being more aware is great,” Shanina enthuses. “It gives me hope for a more open-minded world,” adds Hind.
As Harper’s Bazaar Arabia’s 10th-anniversary cover celebrates a united face of Arabia, bringing together three powerful, independent and graceful Arab women, Shanina heralds the opposition of division, saying, “At this moment in time, unfortunately, society and governments have created hate and fear towards Muslims. The fashion industry is standing up and fighting for love and equality.” Hind echoes the sentiment, concluding, “The fashion industry is opening up to diversity no matter what your religion, colour or country. Every woman deserves a chance in every industry, not just the fashion world.” A sentiment that Harper’s Bazaar Arabia wholeheartedly backs.
Photography: Ellen von Unwerth. Fashion Director: Katie Trotter. Fashion Editor: Gemma Deeks. Fashion Assistant: Malak Rabbat. Make-up: Cathyanne Mac Allister at B-Agency. Hair: Daniel Martin at Bryant Artists. Hair and make-up assistant and manicure: Toni Malt at Things By People. Photography assistants: Stan Rey-Grange and Lahcen Mellal. Digital Operator: Jerome Vivet. Models: Hanaa Ben Abdesslem at Next Models. Hind Sahli at Premier. Shanina Shaik at IMG. Producer: Daniele Ricci @ Ricci Productions & Creative. Production Manager: Harry Gobat. Production assistant: Abdul Sanhaji. Photographed at Royal Mansour, Marrakech www.royalmansour.com