For some, a hijab is a symbol of oppression, for others it is a symbol of personal choice. For Somali-American model Halima Aden, it was the gateway to an astonishing adventure in modeling on the world’s most illustrious catwalks. While the world becomes more divided than ever, Aden has emerged as an inspiration to millions as the first Arab model to ever walk the runway in a hijab. Her story, however, begins in a refugee camp in Kenya, where she was born.
Life in a refugee camp is hard for many of us to imagine – there are no jobs, no resources, and no chances to go outside the camp and participate in society. It’s a tremendously isolating and difficult experience, and the humanitarian crisis caused by growing numbers of refugees from conflict regions like Kenya, the Congo, and Syria is reaching critical mass.
When a family gets notice that it has survived a very rigorous vetting process and found a home for resettlement, its members have exactly 48 hours to gather their belongings and prepare to leave – they don’t even know where they are headed until the last minute. Furthermore, the average span of time that a refugee spends in the camp while awaiting resettlement is 17 years, but Aden only spent the first six years of her life there before her family was resettled in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
It was there in Minnesota that Aden first caught the public’s attention when, at the age of 19, she competed in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant in a hijab. The photo of Aden in a modest burkini next to other contestants in body-baring bikinis caused a media frenzy. For the first time, thousands of young Muslim women around the world saw a figure who looked just like them competing in cultural garb next to Westernized beauty standards.
Not all the responses were good, however, as Aden explained to USA Today saying, “[Pageants aren’t] something that’s done in Somalia. It was a cultural shock… people didn’t even know what a burkini was. I didn’t myself until last year!” Yet, reactions were overwhelmingly positive and numerous girls reached out to Aden via social media to share their personal stories and enthusiasm for her success. She was an overnight sensation.
Aden wasn’t participating in Miss Minnesota USA for the crown so much as she was for the purpose of promoting Muslim representation. “Most images of Muslim woman are attached to victimhood. I never see positive representation, the way I see other women being celebrated. “I wanted to challenge those definitions of beauty,” she stated in an interview. Her boldness was noted by many in the fashion industry, including Kanye West, who booked Aden for his Yeezy Season 5 show. Now signed to IMG Models, Aden made a splash at the Fall/Winter 2017 shows, walking for Alberta Ferretti and Max Mara in Milan.
There are so many inspiring aspects to her story that it’s hard to contain enthusiasm for someone who is shattering both beauty myths and fashion stereotypes. Not only has Aden broken down the barrier between hijab-wearing women and high fashion, she is also a non-traditional model in that she is 5’5, whereas most other top fashion models are 5’9 or taller. Additionally, she is committed to elevating women from all walks of life – no matter what they believe or how they look – and her message of inclusivity is as lovely as her visage.
In an interview with her hero and fellow Somali model Iman, Aden shared, “I went in thinking that I want something positive for young Muslim girls. But I’ve heard stories from parents who are Christians, telling me, ‘Thank you, I want my seven-year-old daughter to know that you don’t have to be half naked to be beautiful.’” While she confessed to still having a lot to learn about the way the fashion industry works, the model is confident that her message has far-reaching abilities, saying, “We have so many barriers to break through… now is the time for us to unite.”