Halima Aden, born 19 September 1997, in a refugee camp in Kenya, she moved to the U.S. with her mom at age seven and grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a town of about 65,000. The summer after graduating from high school, she filled out an application for the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, which awards scholarships to winners. The pageant accepted her. Then a tiny obstacle presented itself: the swimsuit portion of the event. Aden was raised Muslim, and strutting across the stage in a bikini didn’t quite accord with her interpretation of Islam; she prefers to dress modestly, wearing a hijab in public and clothes that aren’t too short or too tight. She asked the pageant organizers if she could wear something with a bit more coverage. “Absolutely,” they said.
Halima Aden 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.”
Halima Aden 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.”
Arriving In United States
In 2005, after an application process lasting years, Halima, her mother, and brother immigrated to U.S., 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.”
“I feel really guilty sometimes. I think, okay, did I make the most out of my journey to America? Did I make the most out of my life? I know millions of other people, other girls my age, they got to stay behind. They got to live their lives out here. And I escaped. I made it out.”
It is tempting to thrust meaning onto Aden, to label her, to turn her into propaganda. In a contentious political and social environment, it would be easy to see her as a poster child for the resistance. A woman in a hijab on the cover of a glossy beauty magazine (or walking down a major runway, for that matter) could be viewed as a counterweight to a Muslim ban. Is she a symbol? Maybe. But she doesn’t live a symbolic life; she lives a human life. If there is symbolism to be read into her, it is in our work, not hers.
“It’s how I interpret my religion,” Aden points out, “but there are women who are Muslim who choose not to wear the hijab. That’s something people often forget.” Aden started wearing hers at eight years old, in imitation of her mom (“Every little girl looks up to her mom so much — that’s your first hero”). Now she’s more reflective about her decision. “Society puts so much pressure on girls to look a certain way,” she says. “I have much more to offer than my physical appearance, and a hijab protects me against ‘You’re too skinny,’ ‘You’re too thick,’ ‘Look at her hips,’ ‘Look at her thigh gap.’ I don’t have to worry about that.”
Indeed. As with any decision to be even a tiny bit non-average, however, there are complications to wearing a hijab. Being stared at is one of them. Being teased is another. Yet Aden shrugs off both circumstances: Sure, she was bullied in middle school, but isn’t everyone?
“I had friends who weren’t wearing it, and they went through bullying, too. It was a tough time — everyone just wanted to be mean.” And now? “If you think people are against you and that you’re a target, things will start appearing that way. I just go about my day, and I don’t think anyone is out to get me.”
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.”
Halima Aden says: “I want my career to be fashion with activism – the two together, that’s perfect. I just got back from Kakuma refugee camp with UNICEF. That was life-changing; to go back to the camp I was born in. It took a lot of work to get here: the people who never forgot about us in the camp; my foster family when we first moved who helped my mum; the social workers; my teachers. Even now, it takes a lot of love and support. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have such incredible people in my life, but I thank them for everything.”
An observant Muslim, Somali-American model Halima Aden proudly wears her hijab
“The hijab is a symbol that we wear on our heads, but I want people to know that it is my choice. I’m doing it because I want to do it,” she told The Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I wanted people to see that you could still be really cute and modest at the same time.”
“You don’t have to conform. You don’t have to take off your scarf. It always comes down to choice: Letting people live the kind of life they want to live.”
Separating migrant children from their parents is deeply traumatizing and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse
Now more than ever — as thousands of Central American migrants continue to leave home in search of a safer future — Halima’s experience as a refugee has inspired her to continue speaking out in support of migrant children everywhere, especially those who may be separated from their families. “I was a child refugee and I can’t even imagine the trauma that would come from being ripped from my mother,” she told Teen Vogue. “It leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Child refugees are a nonpartisan issue.”
“I was a child refugee and I can’t even imagine the trauma that would come from being ripped from my mother.”
In 2017, Halima traveled to the Mexico-Guatemala border to learn how UNICEF supports and protects Central American children and youth fleeing gang violence, persecution and extreme poverty. In June 2018, Halima officially became a UNICEF Ambassador, joining the ranks of P!NK, Selena Gomez and Lucy Liu. As a small child in Kakuma, she remembers that UNICEF’s presence in the camp was a reminder that she was not forgotten. “Before I could sign my own name, when I was literally doing ‘x’ for my name, I could spell UNICEF.”
Refugees want the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their children
What refugees want most, says Halima, is not pity but the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their children. “What we want is to be invited to the conversation. Education, sanitation facilities, safe drinking water. Think of ways we can have that.”
Halima Aden Final Words
My friends keep my feet on the ground. I go home and my mom doesn’t treat me like a cover model – we still live in the same apartment. The first time I went to New York, I had no experience in fashion. But having someone (my manager) with me, I can’t tell you what that did for me. I didn’t feel like I was alone; it didn’t matter what place I was in. I knew
one person I could talk to, and having that gave me the confidence to talk to other people. But I know we don’t all get to have that other person.
“Now, I’m finally at a place where I’m seeing my work as a career, versus, ‘Wow, this kind of fell into my lap, what do I do?’ I’m not saying everything’s guaranteed, but I’m taking it more seriously. I don’t speak for every Muslim girl – I can only speak for myself – but I want to be a good role model. If I can encourage girls to stay true to themselves and not be scared to try something new, then I’ve done a good job.”
Personally, I have never seen myself as a token, but I do think I’ve gotten a lot of recognition for being the first. That wasn’t always an easy position to be in. [Recently] I walked a show with Amina Adan. She’s another Somali girl and was also wearing the hijab, so I’m not the only one.
- Halima Aden Biography and Profile