Halima Aden: Breaking Barriers on the Runway and Beyond
Muslim consumers have always found it difficult to see themselves in the mainstream. Representations of Islam and Muslims were relegated to negative coverage in the news, or shameful caricatures in TV shows. It appeared that Muslims did not have a place in the aesthetic mainstream in the arts, fashion or music. However, a new generation of Muslims are breaking the mould and carving out new roles for Muslim representation.
Among these trailblazers are model and fashion icon Halima Aden. She is a Somali-American fashion model and was the first model to wear a Hijab in a Miss USA pageant. Her participation in the pageant drew a lot of social media attention, both positive and negative. This eventually led her to receive national attention and she was subsequently signed by the highly acclaimed IMG models.
Aden’s journey was one filled with obstacles and roadblocks. She was born in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya on Sep, 19th 1997. At the age of six, she moved to the United States and settled in St. Cloud, Minnesota; an area where 85% of the population are white. Moving there was a difficult process, while Halima understood that her mother had moved there to escape the violence that had displaced them, she had difficulties adjusting as she did not speak English. As a result, she was often lonely at a young age. Their situation had improved once they were settled, but Halima found herself working long hours after school to support her and her family.
Halima has been breaking down barriers and overcoming adversity at every stage of her life. She attended Appollo high school where she was the first Muslim student to be voted homecoming queen. She attends St. Cloud University, where she was voted the student senator becoming the first Somali to do so. When she was on Miss Minnesota USA, she was the first Hijabi contestant and the first contestant to wear a “Burkini” during the swim suit portion of the competition.
Since then, she has already achieved much in her young career. She made her debut at New York Fashion Week for Kanye’s infamous Yeezy line showcasing a modest look as part of the Season 5 collection in 2017. Later that year she served as a judge during the preliminaries and live telecast of the Miss USA 2017 pageant. Numerous high street brands and designers have created modest looks for Halima to show case. These include big names in high fashion such as Maxmara and Alberta Ferretti but also popular consumer brands such as American Eagle. Halima has also broken the mould in media being the first Hijabi model on the cover of Vogue Arabia, Allure and British Vogue. She was als recently the first Hijabi on Essence magazine.
Commentators and fans of Halima believe that the Hijab is becoming more popular in the fashion industry because of the resistance it symbolizes against the current political climate. Western countries are experiencing a rise in anti-immigration and racist sentiment in politics. From Trump to Boris Johnson, anti-Muslim discourse has been given a voice in many western nations. Indeed the chaotic political climate have lead to reactionary campaigns from artists and fashion designers to show their stance on the matter.
Halima has been an advocate for this recent change in fashion. She has been vocal about embracing her Somali and Muslim identity. Her Hijab is a non-negotiable part of all her contracts. She wants to be visible so that she can be a role model for girls everywhere. Her message is one of acceptance, she wants to let young girls know that they do not have to change themselves to conform to societal standards of beauty.
Her work indeed extends beyond her modeling. She is a Unicef ambassador and advocate for children’s rights. When speaking of her work, she remembers her time in Kakuma and the help she received from UNICEF workers there. She also is driven by her need to give back to her community. ‘Now I’m able to give back. I think if you receive a blessing, you shouldn’t think of it as yours to keep. It’s more like a loan. Like, I got my wish. Now I have to pay it forward. ‘If we all paid it forward, the world would be a much better place. I think this is the reason I am here.’ she said speaking about her ambassadorship.
Indeed, many people have different views on Halima’s work. However no one can deny the affect she has had of hoards of Muslims who finally feel represented in fashion and mainstream media. Her work with children and her sincere hopes in helping them should also be admired. Most importantly, we should respect Halima Aden for carving out a space for a Somali Muslim liker herself in a western world that has marginalized her, and for securing a better life for her family.