Halima Aden, a Somali American model, was launched to fame after making headlines as the first hijab and burkini-clad model in a Miss USA beauty pageant. She then signed with the global modelling agency IMG with her hijab as a non-negotiable part of her contract. She went on to become the first hijabi cover model for Sports Illustrated, British Vogue and Vogue Arabia, and the first modest Muslimah to walk the runway at the New York Fashion Week. Clearly labelled as harbinger of many firsts, Halima Aden has not been immune to the pressures of the modelling industry or mainstream media. Feeling strangled by the constraints of prevailing fashion norms, Halima cited pressures to compromise on her beliefs and her hijab as what forced her to step away from the runway.
On November 24, 2020 through a series of lengthy Instagram stories, Halima candidly reflected on her journey with the hijab and her decision to leave the runway. She declared her decision not to wholly give up modelling, but to dismiss those opportunities in the industry that failed to satisfy her code of modesty. She credits the time COVID has given her away from the fashion industry and her mother’s firm, yet brutal honesty for helping her finally realize “where [she] went wrong in [her] personal hijab journey.” She realizes the truth in her mother’s words, who has pressed her to quit modeling having seen how it had forced her to “change it [her hijab] for the world.”
To almost any non-hijabi, it may be difficult to understand how pivotal a piece of fabric can be in defining the identity of a Muslim woman who opts to wear it. In Islam, the hijab, literally transalted as “barrier” or “partition”, is a symbol of idenfitication as a Muslim woman and a sign of modesty in dress, speech, and action. To Halima, her trip through the modeling industry had forced her to reshape this symbol to fit an industry not made for hijabis nor humbling modesty.
Through image-based storytelling, Halima’s story spoke volumes. Not only does it resonate with the plethora of Muslim women and girls who have struggled to reconcile stringent fashion trends with their religious beliefs, but also with any person who has ever felt the pressure to conform to obscure societal norms. But far beyond this surface level relatability, Halima’s story highlights so much of what is wrong with “representation” in a consumer capitalist society. And on this level, she was met with both astounding rounds of virtual applause and brutal criticism and jeering from social media dupes and academics alike.
While mostly received with optimistic openness by Muslim and non-Muslim communities, there was no lack of backlash and criticism, as candidness on social media often seems to warrant. One critique, fielded on Twitter by the self-described “scholar-artist-activist” Dr. Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, fairly highlighted how Halima’s concept of what hijab is sidelined any other conception of modesty: “…her public pronouncement align with a practice of shaming what modesty means to others, especially other Black Muslim women.” Many hijab-wearing Muslims felt, and justifiably so, that Halima’s commentary on what is and isn’t hijab was an implicit judgement of their hijab style preferences.
In another critique, we recognize what Dr. Abdul-Khabeer has named the “twin truths about representation”. In her article, Dr. Abdul-Khabeer analyzes how powerful the media presence of a minority can be, allowing for the repetitive visibility of the most invisible members of society. But the danger is that this meager representation becomes the only representation – Halima being the first hijabi cover model also makes her the sole image for what a hijabi looks like. Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” presents the same idea through a more complex structuralist lens. It discusses how the “present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified” is a society in which the “Other” that received representation becomes a spectacle, something to be observed but not interacted with. The lived experience of every minority becomes folded into a neatly digestible symbol, just visible enough to satisfy the diversity quota, but not too visible so as to disrupt the status quo.
Halima Aden’s declaration against the pressures underscores the long way we still have to go to remove tokenization and establish true representation. Her candidness not only highlights the importance of staying true to one’s values despite implicit demands to compromise in order to be accepted, but also shows how these values cannot be used to describe a monolith.