Halima Aden made headlines around the world earlier this year when she appeared on catwalks and the cover of fashion magazines while wearing her hijab. The Somali-American was born in a Kenyan refugee camp and started wearing the hijab at age eight. Last year she participated in a beauty pageant in her home of Minnesota, which culminated in her being signed by IMG. During a recent trip to Abu Dhabi in partnership with Etihad Airways, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia introduced 19-year-old Halima to Emirati entrepreneur Asma Al-Fahim for a cross-cultural exchange of views. Here’s what they discussed…
ASMA AL FAHIM: WHAT WERE YOU EXPECTING BEFORE COMING TO THE UAE?
Halima Aden: I knew Dubai was super nice; I see pictures on Instagram all the time. I have a lot of friends who wished they lived in Dubai... I don’t blame them, I would love to live here.
A: AND ABU DHABI?
H: I love it. It’s my first time in a Muslim country. I love the diversity, I love how everyone is tolerant and nice and welcoming and also I like the architecture I’ve been so impressed. And the dates! Growing up in a Somali household you have a lot of dates, especially during Ramadan. But seeing them here in a hotel room and then at the Palace we visited. It’s date paradise.
A: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE WAY WOMEN HERE DRESS?
H: I have seen like a lot of Arab women, a lot of girls in abayas. I had to tweet about it I was so impressed. The girls here are so stylish. Even though five girls could be wearing abayas, each one of them like has a unique like something to her. That was really cool for me to see.
A: WHAT MADE YOU GET INTO MODELLING? AS A MUSLIM EMIRATI WOMAN I WOULD THINK TWICE, THREE TIMES, A MILLION TIMES BFORE TAKING THAT STEP…
H: The thing is, I didn’t seek out to do modelling, it honestly just happened. I didn’t audition, I didn’t go to a modelling agency, I didn’t get scouted. I did a pageant to earn scholarship money for school. I wanted to meet the other woman in my state, I wanted to represent Minnesota at a time when some people don’t see me as a Minnesotan, they see me as a foreigner. After the pageant ended it was the fashion industry that reached out. The way it happened it just felt like it was meant to be.
A: HOW DOES MODELLING FIT WITH YOUR AMBITIONS?
H: I am buying time to see what career I want to do when I do go back to college. I think education is really important and it means a lot to my family because one of the reasons why we came to America is for us to get an education.
A: WHAT DOES YOUR FAMILY THINK ABOUT YOUR MODELLING?
H: It depends which family member... I think you can probably relate. There are always conservative relatives in almost every single Muslim family. My mom is very religious and she wants me to focus on school. Taking a semester off was hard for her because she’s worked so much to get us to America. I see where she is coming from as a parent; knowledge is what going to sustain you forever.
A: HOW DO YOU RECONCILE MODELLING WITH WEARING THE HIJAB?
H: My mom, she’ll never take a picture, and that’s ’cause pictures are haram according to her, which I understand. However, growing up, if I had images of somebody who was representing hijab also being represented in a positive way, just having that vision of someone who I can relate to would have meant a lot to me.
A: DO BRANDS AND STYLISTS RESPECT WHAT YOU WILL AND WON’T WEAR?
H: We never go into a job without them knowing all my requirements. I have to have my hijab at all times. Also, I can’t wear pants, but that’s a me thing not a Muslim woman thing, ’cause there are a lot of women who do wear pants. It’s a family thing, I grew up wearing skirts and dresses, so that another requirement. Nothing too tight, nothing see through, nothing sheer. Obviously the setting, like I can’t be in a bar. I feel 99 per cent is common sense.
A: ARE YOU CONCERNED BY ANY OF THE PRACTICES PREVALENT IN THE FASHION AND MODELLING INDUSTRIES?
H: I guess I’ve always been open minded. The way I practice my religion, it affects me; I don’t allow my religion to bond you. I accept people from all different backgrounds. So if one girl decides to be 100 per cent nude, I don’t care. I respect her enough as a woman to make the choice for herself. I would be a hypocrite to say, ‘Why do people judge me for being covered up if I’m tearing down a girl because she is not covered enough?’ I think it’s a woman empowerment thing where you have to stand up for your sister even if she is the complete opposite of you.
A: DO YOU ENGAGE WITH CRITICISM OR IGNORE IT?
H: The people I would engage with, and I have done when they direct message me, I respect because they are not publically trying to tear me down. And some of the DMs can get really rude, but I’m like, ‘Okay, what’s your problem here?’ If it’s a Muslim critic it goes one way, if it’s a non-Muslim critic, it goes the other way. Essentially I’m not trying to say everybody needs to love me, in fact I love the little bit of negativity because it creates a conversation. People’s voices need to be heard, even if I don’t agree with them. Let it be said and maybe through that conversation they’ll have a change of thought.
A: DO YOU EVER FEEL THE PRESSURE THAT COMES WITH BEING HAILED AS ONE OF THE FIRST MODELS TO WEAR THE HIJAB?
H: No, because I’m not inventing something new. For me, wearing a hijab is normal. Even though I’m the first or whatever in the fashion industry, I’m not the first Muslim ever to wear a hijab, so that helps take down the stress. And at the end of the day I’m 19, I’ve never said I’m the perfect poster child for Islam. But I hope that people will learn to be tolerant of one another. I hoping that people will start to see Muslims in a different light, I’m hoping conversations will be had. I’m starting to see that, so I know it’s going good.
A: WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE DURING RAMADAN?
H: For Ramadan I try to stay away from all music, which can be hard. It means no movies, no television, no nothing, because even commercials will have music. For that month everybody has something that they want to work on. For me this month is going to be for me the music. What I always do is Nasheed; it’s halal, so I could replace it with that. Also I sleep a lot during Ramadan, even though you’re supposed to be actually going to work, going to school actually keeping ourselves busy because you get more ajar if you work really hard that month. Unfortunately my body doesn’t work well with not eating and drinking.