Halima Aden, the first hijab-wearing supermodel, quit the fashion industry in November 2020, saying it was incompatible with her Muslim religion. Here, in an exclusive interview, she tells BBC Global Religion reporter Sodaba Haidare the full story – how she became a model, and how she reached the decision to walk away.
Others have described her as a trailblazing hijab-wearing supermodel or as the first hijabi model to feature on the cover of Vogue magazine – but she left all that behind two months ago, saying the fashion industry clashed with her Muslim faith.
As a hijab-wearing model, Halima was selective about her clothing. At the start of her career, she would take a suitcase filled with her own hijabs, long dresses and skirts to every shoot. She wore her own plain black hijab for her first campaign for Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty.
However she was dressed, keeping her hijab on for every shoot was non-negotiable. It was so important to her that in 2017 when she signed with IMG, one of the biggest modelling agencies in the world, she added a clause to her contract making IMG agree that she would never have to remove it. Her hijab meant the world to her.
In the last year of her career her hijab got smaller and smaller, sometimes accentuating her neck and chest. And sometimes instead of the hijab, she wrapped jeans, or other clothes and fabrics, around her head.
But she soon realised that other hijab-wearing models, who had followed her into the industry, were not being treated with the same respect. She would see them being told to find a bathroom to change in.
“A lot of them are so young, it can be a creepy industry. Even the parties that we attended, I would always find myself in big sister mode having to grab one of the hijab-wearing models because she’d be surrounded by a group of men following and flocking [round] her. I was like, ‘This doesn’t look right, she’s a child.’ I would pull her out and ask her who she was with.”
As a child in Kakuma refugee camp, in north-western Kenya, she was taught by her mother to work hard and to help others. And this continued after they moved to Minnesota, when Halima was seven, becoming part of the largest Somali community in the US.
So there was a problem when Halima became her high school’s first hijab-wearing homecoming queen (an honour bestowed on the school’s most popular students). She knew her mum, whose focus was on good grades, would disapprove.
“I was so embarrassed, because when you get nominated, the kids come to your house and I said, ‘Don’t do that – my mum will have the shoe ready and you wouldn’t know what you’ve gotten yourselves into!’”
It was the humanitarian side of Halima’s career that had gone some way to convincing her mother that it was worth it. As a refugee who had walked 12 days from Somalia to Kenya for a better life, she knew the value of helping those in need.
“I met with the kids and asked them, ‘Are things still being done the way they were, do you still have to dance and sing in front of newcomers?’ They said, ‘Yes, but this time we’re not doing it for other celebrities they’d bring to the camp, this time we’re doing it for you.’”
Unicef USA told the BBC: “We are grateful for [Halima’s] three-and-a-half years of partnership and support. Her remarkable story of resilience and hope has guided her vision for a world that upholds the rights of every child. It has been a privilege for Unicef to work with Halima and we wish her all the best in her future endeavours.”
“In the first year of my career I was able to make it home for Eid and Ramadan but in the last three years, I was travelling. I was sometimes on six to seven flights a week. It just didn’t pause,” she says.
In September 2019, she was featured on the cover of King Kong magazine, wearing bright red and green eye shadow and a large piece of jewellery on her face. It resembled a mask and covered everything but her nose and mouth.
King Kong told the BBC: “The artists, photographers and contributors with whom we work express themselves in ways which may both appeal to some and seem provocative to others, but the stories they produce always respect the subject and the model.
“I had zero excitement because I couldn’t see myself. Do you know how mentally damaging that can be to be to somebody? When I’m supposed to feel happy and grateful and I’m supposed to relate, because that’s me, that’s my own picture, but I was so far removed.
The coronavirus pandemic put everything in perspective. With Covid-19 halting fashion shoots and runway shows, she returned home to St Cloud to spend time with her mother, to whom she remains incredibly close.
The photoshoot is not the only thing Halima is excited about. She has just finished executive-producing a film inspired by the true story of a refugee fleeing war and violence in Afghanistan. I Am You is due to be released on Apple TV in March.
“I’m not going to stop volunteering,” she says. “I don’t think the world needs me as a model or celebrity, it needs me as Halima from Kakuma – somebody who understands the true value of a penny and the true value of community.”
“You know, I’ve never been on a proper vacation. I’m putting my mental health and my family at the top. I’m thriving, not just surviving. I’m getting my mental health checked, I’m getting therapy time.”