Halima Aden didn't feel represented in the media as a Somali-American Muslim growing up in Minnesota. But thanks to her, other Muslim girls around the country may not experience quite the same feeling. The viral photo of Halima making history as the first girl to compete for Miss Minnesota USA in a hijab and burkini only marked the beginning for the 19-year-old student who was born in a refugee camp. Since then she has signed to IMG Models, walked for Yeezy Season 5 in New York and Alberta Ferretti in Milan, and posed for the cover of CR Fashion Book — all while wearing a hijab. At the same time Halima is promoting a positive, progressive view of modern Muslim-American women, the American president is pushing through a second Executive Order barring citizens of Somalia from entering the United States. And Halima's not having it. As she flies home after a whirlwind month of show castings and magazine shoots, she tells i-D about her hopes for the future and why her story is something all girls can relate to.
What has it been like traveling around the world after growing up in Minnesota?
I just got back from New York yesterday and back from Milan on Friday. It has been pretty crazy. It's definitely something to get used to. It's all new and I'm still learning, but I'm very grateful that I have the opportunity to travel and see different places. The other girls are so nice. I was so shocked at how open and welcoming everybody has been, running through everything with me and teaching me new stuff.
Did you ever intend for your modelling career evolve from beauty pageants to high fashion?
No, I wasn't expecting anything even remotely close to that! After the pageant I was just like, "Oh, okay, that's the end." I'm still learning about the fashion world because I never kept up with designers or name brands, so it's a big learning experience for me.
What do you hope to achieve by being in magazines and on runways?
Growing up, I knew what it was like not having representation. When I say representation, I just mean people who resemble you or someone you could relate to, or someone who even dresses like you. Not having somebody that you can look up to, it did affect me in a way. If I can give that opportunity to a girl, where she can flip through a magazine and see someone dressed like her, or someone who looks like her or has a similar background, I think that's important. There's a lack of communication and people don't really understand about Somali culture. Me being out in the public and displaying my religion, my faith, being different to what the stereotype is — I think that has opened a lot of people's eyes.
It must have been so cool to meet Iman, who has faced her share of critique for how she practices her religion.
What she's doing is very great, because it gives people two different perspectives. There are over a billion people who practice Islam and everyone practices in their own way. It's good that people can see her and then see me. We both share the same religion but we're a little different.
You were talking about all the positive messages you've been receiving from girls — and not just Muslim ones — on social media. What impact does that have on you?
Yeah! Every day. I'm getting so many messages from Muslim girls and young women — just females in general — who are just telling me "thank you." I feel like a lot of people can relate to me because I'm different. I've always been different, but for a really long time I thought that was a bad thing. I was always like, "Why am I the odd one out? Why do I stand out so much?" It took me a while to just be comfortable in my own skin and really just wear my difference proudly — not be ashamed of the way I dress. I feel like that's something a lot of women experience. Just learning to have good self-esteem and accepting yourself for who you are and not trying to blend in with the standard of beauty.
That feeling is definitely one that pretty much all girls can relate to.
I say I'm different, but really, aren't we all different? I've never seen two people who are the same. I don't think that exists. But I think it's a part of being in your comfort zone. You try to blend in, you try to fit the mould — we all do that. Sometimes it can be unconsciously but I feel like a lot of people are trying to live their lives fitting in instead of standing out. I don't fit the standard of a model, I really don't. I'm only 5'5.5" and most of my peers and friends who are models are at least 5'9" or 5'10". Even then, I don't wish to be taller. I'm proud of my height and I wouldn't want to change that. It's something that makes me unique.
And you also have braces!
And I wear braces on top of that! Growing up, a lot of my friends in high school hated their braces. Kids can be mean sometimes, calling you "Brace Face" or "Train Tracks" but I'm proud of my braces. I know my teeth aren't perfect and I'm not a perfect person so it kind of just matches who I am. I used to be so afraid to talk. People thought I was shy because I was so quiet. I was just like, "I have bad teeth, I'm not quiet!" I've had them on for six years now and I'm at a point where I love them.
Does the increased focus on the Muslim community post-election make your work feel more important?
Oh yeah. I think now more than ever we really need this. The universe has its way of working things out but I think now more than ever the world needs to see an American Muslim in popular media not doing something bad. For a really long time, when you saw a Muslim person on TV, it's usually because someone committed a crime. I don't want fear associated with Muslims. I want us to be humanised because the majority of us are just your everyday normal Americans. That's a side that we have neglected and we have not shown to the world. When a white person commits a crime we don't blame all Caucasians. We blame that one person and call them out by name. Every group deserves that. I don't need people to feel afraid when people see my hijab. I don't need them to think I'm oppressed. This is a choice, just like any other wardrobe that I pick. It's no different than choosing shoes or a jacket.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Fadil Berisha