You’d think that the hijab—the word in Arabic means “partition” and is commonly used to refer to the headscarf of an observant Muslim woman—would at least prevent bad-hair days. But Halima Aden, who made headlines last winter as the first hijab-wearing high-fashion model on runways in New York and Milan, says that isn’t so.
“Your hair has to be smoothed down or it’s going to be puffy—it won’t look as clean and neat,” explains the nineteen-year-old Somali-American, born in a refugee camp in Kenya, as we travel by car to her hometown of St. Cloud, Minnesota. With an adorably dimpled smile she adds, “But everyone has days when it looks a bit ‘off.’ ”
That’s the thing about Halima—her past experience may be unfamiliar to others, but she finds common ground wherever she goes.
A small photograph of her from a few years back hangs in a hallway of her alma mater, Apollo High School in St. Cloud. Teenagers—some in head scarves, others in flannel shirts and work boots—jostle by it on the way to class and during the call to prayer. There’s still a bit of baby fat on the ninth-grade girl in the picture, who wears a printed hijab but shows no hint of shyness in her dazzling grin. Today Halima is a slim five feet five inches tall—petite for a fashion model—but her unstoppable ebullience, meteoric career, and 182,000 Instagram followers (@kinglimaa) make the sign she’s holding in the picture seem eerily prophetic. On it she’d written, “I was born ‘2’ stand out!”
And stand out she has. A year ago, she was elected the first Muslim homecoming queen in her high school’s—and St. Cloud’s—history. “I saw how even something as small as that brought my community and my school together, how it encouraged other girls like me to join student government and clubs,” she says over lunch at a food court popular with high-schoolers. A mauve head scarf frames her expressive black eyes and full lips that cover a mouthful of braces. A black abaya—a long-sleeved, floor-length robe—flows over the spiky, three-and-a-half-inch heels in which she moves about easily. Other girls in head scarves, she recalls, “were coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, I want to go to prom’ or ‘How do I get into orchestra?’ Stuff that I had no idea about, but they were still coming to me for advice.”
So she became more daring. Beauty pageants are not traditionally part of her culture (even though supermodels Iman and Waris Dirie also hail from Somalia). But in the fall of 2016, while newly enrolled at St. Cloud State University, Halima competed, wearing a hijab, for the title of Miss Minnesota USA. No one had ever done so before. She made it to the semifinals, donning for the swimsuit portion of the pageant a burkini: a loosely cut, two-part wetsuit designed to respect Islamic codes of modesty.
It was big news. Pictures of Halima in competition, covered up but radiating an infectious joy and self-assurance, appeared in the press and online, catching the eye of Ivan Bart, head of IMG Models. Within weeks she was in discussions with the agency, which now represents her, and Mario Sorrenti was shooting her, wrapped in a navy hijab, for the cover of the Paris-based CR Fashion Book. “The power really came from her eyes and her presence,” says Sorrenti. “I think there’s a modern quality about her, being of her faith and expressing her femininity and beauty with confidence.”
Generations of Halima’s family kept camels, goats, and sheep in a small town on the outskirts of Kismayo. That city, a strategic port on the Indian Ocean, became a flashpoint in the civil war that has raged in Somalia, on and off, since the early 1990s. To escape the escalating violence, in 1993 her parents joined other refugees making their way across the border by foot (an eleven-day journey) to Kakuma, a camp of thatched-roof huts, tents, and mud cabins perched on the arid plains of northwestern Kenya. Halima was born there in 1997; her brother followed three years later.
“Life in Kakuma didn’t seem so hard to me,” she now says. “I guess I didn’t know ‘easy.’ ” She does remember times when there was not enough food, though her mother grew tomatoes and made incense, selling both to help guard her family against hunger. Water was scarce, and fights would break out between adults waiting in long lines at the well.
Among the children, however, Halima received an ad hoc education in tolerance and diversity. The camp’s inhabitants came from all over Africa, sometimes mingling with children of local Turkana tribespeople. The Turkana are nomadic herders, like the Maasai. They expose much of their skin and worship Akuj, a god they associate with the sky. “We intermixed religions,” Halima recalls. “For Christmas Eve, we didn’t have lots of presents, but my mom’s friends were Ethiopian Christians, so they’d cook and make sure all the kids were fed. The same thing when it was Eid—the Muslim families would cook. And I believed in Akuj, because Turkana kids warned me about him.”
Today, perhaps as a consequence, she’s as likely to defend a friend’s choice of “really short shorts” as she is to champion her own modest forms of dress. “I have a friend who dons the most revealing clothes,” she says. “And I’m like, Girl, if that’s what makes you feel happy and beautiful—go ahead. I’m willing to stand up for her. But it’s ironic because people will slut-shame her, but then apparently they think I’m oppressed because I choose to do the opposite and cover my body.”
In 2005, after an application process lasting years, Halima, her mother, and brother immigrated to this country, arriving first in St. Louis and settling a year later in St. Cloud, where her mother had friends among the city’s sizable Somali community. That was when Halima first put on the hijab, she says, “because I’d seen my mom wearing it, and I wanted to be like her.”
Middle school was difficult. On the school bus or between classes, “kids would tease me about having no hair,” she recalls. “Some Somali students would teach the non-Somali students curse words, so they would curse me in my own language. In sixth grade, one boy used to call me ‘Smellian’ rather than ‘Somalian,’ and other kids picked up on it,” she says. “But we outgrew it, and now he and I are really close.”
There’s poignancy in the fact that Halima’s rising success has coincided with a resistance to welcoming refugees from President Trump, who suspended immigration from six Muslim-majority countries—including Somalia—last March. “I was a refugee,” she says, “and I’m glad the door opened for my family to come to the United States, to find a new life and have opportunities. In my experience, refugees are among the people most fearful of, and most fed up with, violence. My mom has so much respect for the government and authority.” Of President Trump she says, “You can say, I don’t agree with all that he says. But you have to be respectful.”
After lunch we wander through the crowded aisles of the Karmel Square Somali Mall, an unassuming four-story building a ten-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis. Here about 200 stalls offer a seemingly infinite variety of clothing for observant Muslims: from simple pull-on hijabs for little girls to waist-cinching, floral-printed or fancy lace abayas, and sparkling diracs—semitransparent, jewel-toned shawls embroidered in gold and worn at Somali weddings.
Halima is constantly interrupted by eager schoolgirls wanting selfies with her, and older women who pull their veils closer while volunteering advice. A pair of feisty, elderly shopkeepers corner her for a long time, their rapid-fire Somali punctuated with emphatic declarations of “Inshallah!” (“God willing!”) That evening, over dinner in a Somali restaurant, I ask Halima what the women were saying. “They told me, ‘We know you are doing something good now,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘But the longer you spend in that industry, first they’ll want you to wear pants, then tighter and more revealing clothes, and before you know it, no more hijab!’ ”
She sighs. “I understand because it’s their daughters, too, whom I’m affecting. But no one in fashion is pressuring me.” Halima travels with a chaperone and doesn’t allow male stylists to dress her. “I’m signed to one of the top agencies in the world,” she continues. “They already have models who are willing to bare all, but there is only one right now who is wearing the hijab.”
Nearby, a little girl in a head scarf stares at our table, starstruck, while her mother and aunts chat distractedly. “I want girls like that to be able to flip through a magazine and see someone who looks like them,” Halima says. “So why would I take my hijab off?”
For now, at least, the fashion world isn’t looking to change her. This past February, she walked for Yeezy in New York and Max Mara and Alberta Ferretti in Milan, modeling coats while wearing coordinating head scarves. Ferretti met Halima during the fitting process and was struck by the model’s combination of strength and sweetness. The designer, who has spent time in the United Arab Emirates (where, most recently, she created a bridal gown for one of its princesses), has met numerous women in the region “who wore the veil, traveled and worked, and had wonderfully compelling lives,” she recalls. “And I thought, Why not give Halima the opportunity to walk in the show like any other modern woman?”
For Ian Griffiths, creative director of Max Mara, “Halima has such a strong personality that it shines through on the runway. She comes across as an intelligent, confident, ambitious, courageous woman even when she’s just walking along. So we absolutely wanted to cast her.” Market considerations, he says, were also a factor. “If you walk down a top-end shopping street in any major city, you wouldn’t be surprised to see a Max Mara coat worn with a hijab,” Griffiths notes. “So why shouldn’t our runway reflect that too?”
I catch up with Halima a week after seeing her in Minneapolis on a photo shoot for The Modist on Long Island. During a break, Halima reflects on some long-term goals. She’d love to be involved with UNICEF, she says. She’d like to see Somalia rebuilt, its schools, museums, and a major sports stadium recover from the devastation of war. “My grandmother, who lives there, thinks it’s wishful thinking,” she says. “But I believe it can happen.”
She’s still coming to grips with the platform modeling has given her. “I see how powerful it is,” she says. “I’m able to reach people who may never have met a Muslim person before, but they hear my story, and they get to know something about Somali-Americans.”
In the meantime, Somali-American women are making inroads in politics as well as fashion. Last November, 34-year-old Ilhan Omar was elected to the Minnesota state legislature, making her the first Somali-American—and hijab-wearing—lawmaker in the nation. Speaking on the phone, Omar points out that the image that both she and Halima project has influence far beyond the Muslim-American community. “It’s about conformity,” she says, “in my own case, the idea that you don’t have to conform to a particular ideal of what a woman in politics looks like in order to be elected. For young women, whether they are Muslim or not, and whether they wear the hijab or not, they can look at Halima and think, Wow, she made it on her own terms.”
Omar, clearly an astute politician, drives home her point. “If she was accepted while being true to herself,” she observes, “then they understand that all they need to work toward is being the best version of themselves. They don’t have to try to be someone else.”