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United States

From refugee camp to runway, hijab-wearing US model breaks barriers and helps the headscarf go mainstream

Halima Aden has had a whirlwind year since coming to prominence as a beauty pageant contestant, but she’s taking it in her stride

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 11:18am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 11:18am

Roughly one year ago, Denise Wallace, executive co-director of the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, received a phone call from 19-year-old Halima Aden asking if she could compete in the contest wearing her hijab.

“Her photo popped up and I remember distinctly going, ‘Wow, she is beautiful,’” Wallace said.

The Somali-American teen made headlines as the first hijab- and burkini-sporting contestant in the history of the pageant. The bold move catapulted her career to new heights involving many “firsts”, including being the first hijabi signed by a major modelling agency.

“I wear the hijab every day,” Aden, who was in New York for Fashion Week, said.

The hijab – one of the most visible signs of Islamic culture – is going mainstream, with advertisers, media giants and fashion firms promoting images of the traditional headscarf in ever more ways.

She is someone who is so amazingly representative of who we are as America
Michelle Lee, Allure

Nike announced it is using its prowess in the sports and leisure market to launch a breathable mesh hijab in spring 2018, becoming the first major sports apparel maker to offer a traditional Islamic headscarf designed for competition. Teen apparel maker American Eagle Outfitters created a denim hijab with Aden as its main model. The youthful headscarf sold out in less than a week online.

Allure magazine’s editor-in-chief, Michelle Lee, is also in the mix, describing Aden as a “normal American teenage girl” on the front cover of the magazine’s July issue.

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“She is someone who is so amazingly representative of who we are as America, as a melting pot it totally made sense for us,” Lee said.

Aden, born in Kakuma, a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, came to the United States at age seven with her family, initially settling in St. Louis, Missouri.

She fondly recalled her time at the refugee camp, saying: “Different people, different refugees from all over Africa came together in Kakuma. Yet we still found a common ground.”

In America, she was an A-student and homecoming queen. Now, her ultimate goal is to become a role model for American Muslim youth. “I am doing me and I have no reason to think that other people are against me,” Aden said. “So I just guess I’m oblivious.”

Aden said she is content being a champion for diversity in the modelling industry, but in the future she hopes to return to Kakuma to work with refugee children.