Halima Aden on modest dressing for the modern woman
Back in 2016, a young Muslim woman named Halima Aden made history by competing in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant, the first hijab- and burkini-wearing participant to do so. And the world sat up and took notice. Four years on and Aden has carved out a successful, boundary-breaking career as a model – from countless catwalk appearances to Sports Illustrated’s iconic Swimsuit Issue – but it’s her work around positive representation and changing the conversation for Muslim women that ultimately inspires her. Here, she talks exclusively to PORTER about big dreams, dream dresses and pushing the needle in the right direction…
Ramadan is our holy month in Islam for Muslims partaking in the holiday, but I think it’s a time for us all right now, while so many of us are at home – hopefully with family. The things that Muslim families typically practice during this time are now being shared by the entire world – reflecting and bonding with loved ones; it really is a time of self-growth. Although nobody expected the world to shut down, I think one of the best things we can take away from this period is the extra time we’ve been given, because we all have busy schedules, work and life commitments. This month, I have much more time to reach out to some of those relatives I probably wouldn’t have, or to people I’ve lost contact with over the years. It is a time to reconnect – and not just with yourself.
There is always a big emphasis on what children wear for Eid. Growing up, I remember my mother having my outfit ready and laid out a month in advance. One year, I even recall sleeping in my fancy attire, as I was so excited to try it on the night before and knew I would be waking up early for prayer. I remember so much of that time, from the ages of about eight to ten, when I would go shopping with my mom. Where I live in Minnesota, we have the largest Somali diaspora community in the US, so there were a lot of girls around my age who were also celebrating. We didn’t really have the option of modest fashion back then, so it was about running to the Somali stores, because a lot of the shops would get their Eid shipments around a month in advance. I was like, “First come, first served – we’re going, Ma!”
I already gave a preview on my Instagram of what I would probably wear this year. It’s a white dress by Ellery, and it’s so extra – my family would probably laugh me out of the room if I wore that look. In Minnesota we’re still really laid-back in terms of fashion; I think in reality I would most likely wear a cute summer dress with a blazer or a patterned skirt; something a bit more toned down but still classy. But in my dream Halima world, I would wear that white gown to enter Eid in, with the scarf styled like a ponytail, draping over one shoulder.
My first fashion memory would probably be seeing my mom wearing a jilbab and a hijab in different colors – that was when I realized different shades could look really good. I’d think, “Oh, my mom looks so pretty in this shade of red.” Growing up, I had so many fashion icons and people I would look up to who didn’t look like me, but at the same time, I wish I’d had someone to tell me, “You could look that cool, edgy, young and fun and still conform to your wardrobe requirements.”
I always knew the hijab was a big part of my identity. I still want to be able to attend a red carpet, or my cousin’s wedding – different events throughout life – and feel glamorous, beautiful, confident and wear something that still says, “I’m 22 and so full of life!” For a very long time, finding looks that were modest but still modern was impossible. I’m so grateful we’re living in a time where the modest movement has taken off and people are realizing it’s the oldest fashion staple, and not just for Muslim women – so many women choose to dress modestly.
When I competed for Miss Minnesota USA in 2016, it was life-changing. It was such a positive thing, but it was also an educational moment for the world, because a lot of people didn’t know what a burkini was. I actually grew up not knowing there was a modest swimsuit option. When I wore it on stage, it was the first time someone had worn a hijab and burkini [in the pageant]. Fast-forward to appearing in Sports Illustrated’s iconic swimsuit issue in 2019 wearing burkinis – that was a history-making moment in my career.
It’s not as if Muslim women don’t want to look classy or go to the gym. There’s a huge need, and I think companies are waking up to that. Whether I had a part in that I can’t say for sure, but throughout my journey, the conversation has changed. I’m still getting messages from parents telling me their daughter is taking swim classes for the first time, and that means so much to me. Even to this day, I don’t know how to swim, because I didn’t grow up with a burkini as an option. It goes so much deeper than just clothes and looking good and what’s on trend – it really is something that will impact the lives of so many women. I’m incredibly happy these girls are getting a chance I never had, and my mother’s generation never even came close to having, which is positive representation: a young woman of color who wears a hijab, who’s Muslim, who lives in a small town in Minnesota and still made it in fashion. I didn’t have to change who I am; that is the message I think it gets to these girls.
For a long time with clothing I had that mindset of, “As long as it’s covering my back, I’m out the door,” and that really does stem from my humble beginnings in a refugee camp. Now, it’s becoming a more positive, more fun, more exciting relationship with fashion, where I’m testing the waters and trying different looks. I’ll come to every shoot with a suitcase of hijabs in different colors and different prints, as well as turtlenecks, because I don’t want to miss out and I recognise that being the first probably means no one in that space in fashion has worked with a hijab-wearing person. It needs to be a partnership, which is a unique position.
My goal is to inspire as many women as I can, so they can then go out and pave the way for the next group of girls, who they in turn can inspire. At the end of the day, we need more visibility when it comes to Muslim women, and I’m happy to be part of that movement, but I know it needs to go much deeper than that. I’m so grateful we have women like Ibtihaj [Muhammad], who is an Olympic fencer – her hijabi Barbie doll came out recently, which was a first. These things are good for our community, so we’ll just keep it going.
I’m going to be honest: there are so many times in life, even as an adult, where you’re thinking, “Why do I have to be the only one in a space who looks like me? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if I just looked like everyone else?” I want to eliminate that train of thought. Just be you and the right people will accept you for who you are. Change is good and it’s needed, but there’s a difference between changing because you want to change and feeling pressure to conform in order to be allowed into a space. And that all stems from a lack of representation, because what you don’t see, you can’t be.