Halima Aden, the world’s first hijab-wearing supermodel, says that she sacrificed her own career in the hope that it would encourage others to speak up for themselves.
In a new interview for BBC 100 Women with designer Tommy Hilfiger, who is a champion of diversity on the runway, Aden explained that she quit fashion so that others like her would feel safe to voice their opinions.
“Don’t change yourself, change the game… I want the girls to know, Halima took one for the team… I really hope if I did anything the last four years, it’s to give models the opportunity to know that they can speak up," she said.
"I felt great pressure being the first Muslim, hijab-wearing model in the industry and I felt a sense of responsibility for the girls who followed in my footsteps, and so I’m hoping through my exit and how vocal I have been, they’re inspired to speak up on set.”
Aden was born in a refugee camp in Kakuma, in the north-west of Kenya. Her mother fled Somalia in 1994 during the civil war to seek a better life for her children, arriving in Kakuma and later settling in Minnesota in the United States.
Aden found fame as the world's first hijab-wearing model after participating in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant and earning a contract with IMG Models. And then, in November 2020, she made the shock announcement that she would be stepping back from the fashion industry, claiming that she could no longer align her career path with her faith.
In the BBC interview, she spoke about the pressures she felt as the first Muslim hijab-wearing model and called for an end to tokenism in the fashion industry. “I think it’s time we leave tokenism in the past. Muslim, hijab-wearing models are no different to the other models on the runway or on set, they’re really no different besides an article of clothing. So how do we make them feel comfortable, make them feel part of the show, part of the campaign, in a way that’s not ticking a box?”
At the start of her career at age 19, Aden incorporated two, non-negotiable conditions into her modelling contract: "Hijab and no male stylists". Any fashion brand that wanted to work with her had to abide by these rules. But as her career progressed, Aden found that a lot of the styling she was subjected to did not reflect the true fundamentals of wearing the hijab, she told The National in an exclusive interview earlier this year.
"The first two years of my career, I was the stylist and came to set with hijabs, of all different types of fabrics, leggings, turtlenecks, and I would be in charge of doing my own hijab," the former model said. But, as the years passed, Aden let her guard down. "I let them style me and got comfortable.”
In the BBC interview, Hilfiger expressed his disappointment in the way that the fashion industry continues to operate, particularly in the case of a hijab-wearing Muslim model being asked to wear a revealing dress and get changed in a public park.
“I think it’s outrageous and I think it’s disrespectful. Obviously, she’s working with someone without any empathy whatsoever and that really angers me. It’s embarrassing to be part of a business and part of a community that has such outrageously antiquated ideas and not caring about the people they’re working with.”
He also highlighted the challenges he has faced in trying to bring about change in the industry. “I’ve had, I would say, knock-down-drag-out fights with casting directors who have worked for us, stylists who have worked for us, who have told me that ‘this girl doesn’t belong on our runway’ for certain reasons. And I have said: ‘Look, my name is on the door. You work for me. We’re doing what I want to do.’
“I want to be known as someone who walked the walk, didn’t just talk the talk. My hope is that the entire industry changes and I know that I cannot affect that change alone. I would like other executives to realise the importance of it. That goes from the top of the company to the bottom of the company, and it’s not just for the ad campaign or it’s not just for the runway but it has to run like a river through the entire company.”