Supporters of Halima Aden say they could not be happier to see the Somali-American continuing to break new ground as the first model to wear a hijab on runways and in magazines.
Twenty-year-old Halima Aden is making her mark as a Somali-American model who has made it a point of keeping true to her roots in her work as a cover girl and now ambassador for humanitarian organisation UNICEF.
Aden’s family fled their home during Somalia’s civil war, relocating to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. She remained there for seven years before heading to the United States and settling in St. Cloud, Minnesota, with her mother and younger brother.
From the start, Aden says she was determined to have a better life, taking on two jobs by the age of 16.
Landing a modelling contract happened by chance when she decided to enter the Miss Minnesota pageant as a 19-year-old.
Her decision to wear a hijab in the pageant received publicity and photos soon went viral.
The photo was taken while she advocating against the string of mall stabbings involving a Somali man. A chance photo of her with a baby named Jayse playing with her hijab was posted on a state senator’s social media account, and it went viral.
Soon the story switched focus from the anti-violence protest to being about Halima’s journey as the first contestant wearing a hijab in the Miss Minnesota pageant 2016.
She later decided to also wear a burkini for the swimsuit segment of the competition.
Soon CR Fashion Book was knocking on the door for cover magazine shoot and a contract with international modelling agency IMG soon followed.
She said setting her own terms, including the condition of wearing a hijab in her modelling work, was a key focus for her as she negotiated the modelling contract.
In the past 18 months as a model, the first to wear a hijab on the runway, she has been on nine covers. Two years ago, she struggled to find a picture of somebody wearing a hijab inside the magazine, let alone on the cover.
“When I got that opportunity to sign with IMG models, I made sure I wasn’t conforming,” she told American television program, CBS This Morning.
Seven months into her modelling career she was still working as a housekeeper.
Aden said remembering where she came from has been a touchstone for all her work including those assignments when she graces the cover of Vogue Arabia, Allure and Glamour.
“Growing up, I never saw magazine articles painting Muslim women in a positive light,” she said in an interview with Teen Vogue. “In fact, if I saw an article about someone who looked like me, it would be the complete opposite.”
She went back to Kakuma camp recently to take part in the first ever TEDx event at a refugee camp. Her journey home for the first time in 13 years is documented in a video by Teen Vogue.
She says while her family did not have much in material possessions in the camp, they had each other.
“Kakuma doesn’t have much, but we had little beetles and insects,” she said. “I remember this one time I was chasing some kind of critter and it led me somewhere I’d never even been before. To the edge of Turkana County. That’s how far I ventured out, but I always made it home.”
As for her work being an ambassador for UNICEF, Aden said it is like things are coming full circle. She got a chance at a new life because of UNICEF, and now she has the opportunity to return the favour.
“They always reminded me as a kid that I was not forgotten. I didn’t know what life outside of a camp looked like,” she said.
“I couldn’t even imagine it. UNICEF was [my world]. Before I could sign my own name, when I was literally doing ‘x’ for my name, I could spell UNICEF.”
Changing the face of modelling, Aden has quickly built a fan base. The supporters include those who say they have a new role model to look up to.