“It’s very simple: Take me as I am, or we’re not partnering.”
Born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, Aden is originally Somali. At the age of six, she and her family immigrated to Minnesota. At age 19, Aden became the first contestant to wear a burkini and hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. After getting to the semifinals, Aden became a national sensation; she signed a three–year contract with IMG Models, and walked for prestigious designers like Glamour, American Eagle, Allure, and Vogue.
Aden’s modeling career was nothing short of revolutionary. Not only was she the first hijab–wearing model to walk international runways and sign on to a major agency, Aden was also the first model to become a UNICEF ambassador, wear a burkini in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, and the first to release her own turban and and shawl collection at Istanbul Fashion Week.
As a model and activist, Aden fought against toxic Euro–centric ideals of beauty that are pervasive in the fashion industry. Her career in and of itself put a face to Islamic feminism, proving to Westerners that modest fashion is just as empowering as any other style.
But the fashion industry slowly revealed its true colors. With every new photo shoot, Aden noticed her hijab got smaller and smaller. Some brands even replaced the hijab with a pair of jeans or ornamental objects — many of which exposed Aden’s shoulders or collarbone. Aden’s hijab was treated as a fashion statement, which insults its religious and cultural significance.
Aden also found the treatment of other hijabi models to be disturbing. Though Aden was guaranteed a blocked–out box to get dressed in privacy, other hijabi models were told to find a bathroom to change in.
“That rubbed me the wrong way…A lot of them are so young, it can be a creepy industry. Even at 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,” Aden described.
By November of 2020, Aden decided it was time to quit modeling.
“Looking back now, I did what I said I would never do. Which is compromise who I am in order to fit in…If my hijab can’t be this visible — I’m not showing up,” she said in a now-deleted Instagram post.
Aden’s decision sent shockwaves through the fashion and news industry, shedding light on the stigmatization of Muslim women. Though Muslim women see the hijab as intrinsic to their cultural and religious identity, many Westerners stereotype the hijab as a form of oppression.
This stigma is reflected in global laws: a 2004 French hijab ban in K-12 public schools, a 2016 Bosnian hijab ban in judicial institutions, a 2020 Belgian hijab ban in all universities and higher education institutions, and a 2017 European Court of Justice ruling that employers can prohibit staff members from wearing the hijab. Television also reflects Islamophobia: the little Muslim representation that exists generally portrays Muslim women as submissive victims.
And, as Aden discovered, the fashion industry is no exception. There are barely any female hijabi designers or makeup staff, and the few Muslim models are often white–passing and tokenized by being plastered onto magazine covers for “diversity.”
To confront these toxic norms, Aden decided to return to the fashion industry grounded with her strong sense of self. Speaking at a conference in Istanbul, she announced that she is the new global brand ambassador for modest fashion retailer Modanisa, where she plans to design two new collections.
Aden also described ways to improve the fashion industry during her speech.
“Life is tough for visibly Muslim women, and we need to see more vocal support from mainstream brands who have modest fashion lines and make sure it’s not tokenistic or a matter of ticking a check box.”
About 69% of women who wear the hijab have experienced an incident of disiscrimination, which could be improved if influential brands stepped up to do the bare minimum of normalizing the hijab.
Of course, Muslim representation in fashion extends beyond models and marketing. Brands should also hire more diverse women stylists, hair and makeup staff, casting directors, and editors–in–chief.
Many brands could also include hijab lines; some already are. For instance, after a campaign featuring Middle Eastern women athletes, Nike announced plans to sell a lightweight hijab line, the “Nike Pro Hijab.” H&M, UNIQLO, DKNY, and Mango have also all launched special hijab collections aimed at Muslim women.
The modest fashion industry is also becoming very profitable: a 2018 report by Dinar Standard projects a 4.8 percent annual growth for the modest fashion sector, with sales expected to reach $402 billion by 2024. Modest fashion has even had its own fashion week in London, Amsterdam, Dubai, and Istanbul.
This all goes to show how effective activism is not performative. If the fashion industry really wants to be inclusive toward Muslim women, the first step is to accept and respect the hijab as a symbol of faith and pride.
Halima Aden — fearless, feminist, and valiantly advocating for Muslim women — will no longer accept the status quo.
“For Muslim women, the hijab is not just a trend for us. It’s a lifestyle…This is for stronger women and a stronger tomorrow.”