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Muslim model Halima Aden quits fashion industry

The Somali model told her social media followers pressure to compromise her religious beliefs prompted her decision
The trailblazer model said she is severing ties with a number of brands she feels are not in line with her faith (Mohamad Elaasar/MEE)

In a series of powerful social media posts, prominent Somali model Halima Aden, 23, said she is quitting the fashion industry and only taking new bookings on her own terms.

The model, who has been on the covers of British Vogue and Sports Illustrated, and has worked with fashion brands like MaxMara and Yeezy, said she felt she had "lost touch" with who she was in the fashion industry, and was forced to compromise her faith.

Aden, who has long been hailed by both the fashion industry and Muslim women as the champion of modest fashion, revealed that she will be cutting ties with a number of brands and declining jobs that she says do not respect her religious beliefs.

“Not even for $10 million would I ever risk compromising my hijab ever again. You will catch me working at McDonald's before I ever ever walk runway shows or travel for fashion month... I’m guarding my hijab unlike ever before,” she wrote. 

Over two days, Aden posted a number of Instagram stories in which she reflected on times in her life where she felt pressured to conform with those around her, and agreed to do shoots that she says were not true to herself.  

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“I can only blame myself for caring more about the opportunity than what was actually at stake. I blame myself for being naive and rebellious. What I do blame the industry for is the lack of women stylists,” she wrote. 

In a number of photos from previous campaigns, Aden - who rose to fame in 2016 following a Miss USA beauty pageant where she was spotted and later signed to the global modelling agency IMG  - notes that she would often justify decisions at the time because she was desperate for any representation, but would no longer be doing so. 

“I went back to my hotel room and just sobbed after this shoot because I knew deep down this wasn’t it,” she wrote over a photo from one of her shoots.

Aden, who walked the runway at New York Fashion Week, also spoke about how being the first model in a hijab on runways and magazine covers was difficult.

“I was too scared to speak up. Also a very common struggle when you are the first to do something,” she added. 

She went on to share images of photoshoots and campaigns she regrets doing in hindsight, saying she wished she had politely declined.

“As if we ever needed these brands to represent Hijabis. THEY need US. Never the other way around, but I was just so desperate back then for any ‘representation’ that I lost touch with who I was.” 

'Breath of fresh air'

The posts, which were shared with her 1.2 million followers on Instagram, resonated with her online audience. Many have praised her for speaking out and some say they can relate to the issues she has faced. 

Many social media users called her Instagram stories unapologetic and used the opportunity to discuss how the beauty and fashion industries influence preceptions of beauty. 

Some social media users commended Aden for reclaiming her agency and ensuring that her beliefs are respected. One called the model’s stories “a breath of fresh air” and said that it inspired her to reflect on her own hijab journey. 

Some public figures also supported Aden's decision, including Palestinian-Dutch supermodels Gigi and Bella Hadid, and singer Rihanna, who Halima praised for allowing her to bring her own hijab to set while working on the singer's Fenty beauty campaign.

Erasing culture 

Earlier this week, Aden also hit out at media organisations that often erase her Somali heritage and identity by labelling her as Arab or Middle Eastern.

In a number of posts, Aden said that many Black people have to prove their faith, as people often incorrectly assume that Islam is a Middle Eastern religion, rather than a universal one.

“I have nothing but love for all my brothers and sisters in Islam. But I refuse to let anyone strip me of my identity. My ancestors worked too hard for me not to own who I am and where I came from. Unfortunately this is a dilemma many black Muslims have to face. Growing up, I was placed in so many situations where I had to prove my faith all because I wasn’t Arab. Islam is universal. Be proud of your identity,” she added.

The model, who frequently speaks about her Somali heritage and about being born in a refugee camp in Kenya, said that she has worked hard to change the perceptions people have of Somalia and does not want that to be erased.

“I only saw ‘famine’, ‘war’, ‘impoverished’ when the media referred to Somalia. It’s been a personal mission of mine to give the world a new perspective not just on Somalis but refugees. 

“Although I am a proud Muslim woman, I am Somali. Because before I made history, nobody was trying to claim us. No media outlet was putting shine on Somalis.”

'Such a shame'

The posts have sparked numerous conversations about the hijab and the fashion industry online. 

Last year, Middle East Eye spoke to the founder of a modest modelling agency, who decided to set up the agency after seeing that Muslim models feel as though they are still not being represented behind the camera. 

One model told MEE of her experiences being turned away because she wore the hijab.

“I had bookers say to me that I wasn’t versatile enough and that it was ‘such a shame’ that I wear the hijab. Some would try to entice me by saying that I could go so much further within the industry if I took off my hijab.”

This artcle is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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