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Halima Aden and shaping one's own hijab journey



When I opened model Halima Aden’s Instagram story it was like watching a landmark moment in history — hijab history that is. As I continued to read her confessions and revelations about being the first hijabi model, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. She was blowing the lid on something deeper than a disdain of the pressures associated with the fashion industry. She was tackling her highly praised — and criticised — public journey with her hijab and setting the record straight.

Halima Aden attends a premiere (Getty Images/Rich Fury)

Much like Aden (pictured), I too was born in a Kenyan refugee camp and fled abroad to the West and grew up wearing a hijab from a very young age. It was my choice. I wanted to look like my mother and older sisters. I wore the same pinless little hijab in primary school that Aden shared on her Instagram and so many other hijabi girls did. In a school photograph of mostly non-Muslim children, I always stuck out, the one with fabric covering her hair. From my skin to what I wore on my head, it was hard to be so visibly different. Yet I continued to wear the hijab throughout the horror years of high school — despite what names I was called.

It was only until I got out into the adult world that I began to feel less and less connected to my hijabi identity. I was confronted with the possibility of having limited job opportunities. Finding a job as a young woman was hard enough, add black and hijabi and it was overwhelmingly difficult.

When I did eventually get a job, the focus was uncomfortably on my hijab — less interest and more scrutiny. I began to think maybe if I wore my hijab in a turban, it wouldn’t be as noticeable, or maybe if I only ever wore lighter coloured hijabs I would be less ‘confronting’. I allowed so many people to make unwarranted and inappropriate comments, like ‘You’d look great without a scarf on your head’, or ‘It’s good you don’t have to wear the one that covers your entire face’. It hurt, it was awkward, and I felt what Aden described as ‘wanting to be the hot hijabi’. By all means, you can be both. However, ‘hot hijabi’ is the biggest oxymoron.

A hijab is a symbol of modesty, a symbol of the Islamic faith for a woman who chooses to value character over physical appearance. When you wear a hijab, it is a bond between Allah and yourself. It is a deeply personal relationship. The only thing that should be considered ‘hot’ when wearing hijab is your character.

Aden was a first and a trailblazer for a group of people who before her were long ignored in the mainstream fashion industry. She has many regrets and admits she made mistakes, but for a fresh-faced teenager who was given this huge responsibility, she says, she did good. I say different, she did bloody brilliant. Today, she has set the standard. No longer is she allowing the fashion industry to change the hijab aesthetic to be more palatable for wider society.


'No longer should hijabis feel the pressure to conform to what is deemed cool, edgy, fun or my least favourite, "modern". We shape our own journey with our hijab, no matter who feels comfortable or uncomfortable with it.'


Aden’s declaration of taking ownership of one’s hijab journey cannot come at a more crucial time. In July, Muslim women protested against Belgium’s hijab ban in higher education while on campus. A Belgian court maintained it did not violate freedom of religion. Belgium is not unique in its ‘hijabi ban’, France has been doing it for years and even Turkey, a Muslim country, recently overturned its policy on hijabs in university.

Women who wear the hijab live in a world where we are always trying to make ourselves smaller to ‘blend in’. Today, more than ever I am proud to be able to see young role models, like Halima Aden, say enough is enough. No longer should hijabis feel the pressure to conform to what is deemed cool, edgy, fun or my least favourite, ‘modern’. We shape our own journey with our hijab, no matter who feels comfortable or uncomfortable with it. In the words of Aden, ‘Cancel me, who gone cancel me? I’m bowing out gracefully.’



Najma Sambul is a Somali-Australian writer. She writes both non fiction and fiction, but is adamant fiction writing still has a future. She has a number of unpublished short stories and a half completed comedy screenplay on her laptop. She remains optimistic about their future.

Main image: Halima Aden attends a premiere (Getty Images/Rich Fury)

Topic tags: Najma Sambul, Halima Aden, hijab, hijabi, fashion, Somali, Islam



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Existing comments

Najma and Halima are a model for all of us. Without pleading victim hood, they take responsibility for the integrity of their own beliefs. Despite the (often) good intentions of those who enable different interpretations of the wearing of the hijab, the end is always the same -an oxymoron like ‘hot hijab’. Maybe Islam is not the only religion which is subjected to attempts to sweeten it up? Maybe we all need to know what’s essential and not to be surrendered.

Joan Seymour | 27 November 2020  

It is interesting that the Muslim rules on both men's and women's dress, based on the Quran and hadith, have to do with decency, modesty and propriety, values that most decent people in our society would share. Traditional Muslim clothing is the norm in most of the Islamic World. It is not 'the dress of ISIS' et sim. In fact, followers of ISIS had a fairly distinct mode of dress, which marked them out as such. Bright colours, so prevalent in normal Muslim countries, were 'out'. Muslim dress is, hopefully, becoming more acceptable in normal Western society. Muslims need to take up the same sort of dialogue which SBS encourages on ethnicity. I am glad Najma, Halima and others did not retire into a frightened and defensive shell. This is, to an extent, what is called a 'women's issue' though it is also about religion and the right to practice your religion openly without fear. Bravo, Najma!

Edward Fido | 01 December 2020  

Thank you Najma: this is wonderful. My favourite line is “A hijab is a symbol of modesty, a symbol of the Islamic faith for a woman who chooses to value character over physical appearance.” I’ve never before heard it so aptly put!

Kate Moriarty | 08 December 2020  

The interweaving of Christianity with the technological impulses within Western culture has led to belief that a faith which is inconsistent with reason must be untrue. The New Testament foretelling of this is Peter’s dream about the animals. The hijab fails the test of reasonable faith because it is a skin, not a symbol. A nun’s habit is a symbol because it is only a uniform. Nuns who work in a community vegetable patch alongside the secular poor or clean the banks of creeks can do so in health and comfort in secular clothing. As can women soldiers. Skins stay on. The principle that one must wear a hijab extends to the principle that one must wear a burkini in order to swim or sweat in leggings when playing soccer. Where is the autonomy or ‘liberation’ in that? To be fair to Muslim women, Amish women are in the same boat. If you have to assert an identity by policing your body, you lose, because men never have to police their bodies. Like the military or nursing uniform, or the veil at a Traditional Mass, the uniform or symbol is for the duration of the function, not skin superseding function.

roy chen yee | 12 December 2020  

Roy Chen Yee needs to be informed of the reason behind the requirement for covering up certain parts of both men's and women's bodies in Islam. The requirement is that of modesty. Clothes are not a 'uniform' or 'skin' but the decent dress pertaining to a human being. Muslim women work on farms wearing this dress. There are certain parts of the human body which, under normal circumstances, are only revealed to one's spouse. It is interesting that the traditional dress of nuns was based on normal women's clothing worn in the Renaissance and is similar to the traditional clothing of women in countries such as Morocco. These days, if you talk about modest clothing in the West, you are often written off as a prig. That is because we now seem to have no common agreement of what is decent to wear.

Edward Fido | 14 December 2020  

Edward Fido: “The requirement is that of modesty.” Faith cannot be based on responses to contingencies. That is the point behind Peter’s dream and, in another thread, the Decree to the Jacobites. Responding to contingencies merely gets you into a relativistic competition of manners: I’m modest because I only show my face; No, I’m modest because I only show my eyes. Attaching a faith to a contingency will sink its validity. A simple change to physical reality called universal education sank the validity of the caste system, and, with it, Hinduism as a believable faith. A little yeast leavens the batch. Catholicism has always been aware of the religious neurosis that is scrupulosity, in part because it has had to rebuff Protestant challenges concerning veneration of Mary and the saints and other ‘bells and smells’. Works exhibit faith. Works which possess logical deficiencies misrepresent faith because, at the basis of it, true faith, originating in the nonmaterial realm of the spirit, cannot be a self-contradicting system of logic.

roy chen yee | 20 December 2020  


EDITORS | 22 December 2020  

I must confess it is hard for me to follow Roy Chen Yee as he proceeds on his way like the Pied Piper. There are several discordant notes to his tune. Modesty in dress is something which all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) insist upon. It is not a 'contingency' but an outgrowth of faith. I think he takes a rather Manichean view of the world. Christianity, certainly in its Catholic aspect, does not see a split between Body and Spirit, but looks to the latter to inform the former. I would suggest this is the raison d'etre for modesty of dress. Islam and Judaism are very similar. One may cavil with them about specifics of dress, but the underlying reason is modesty. Modesty in dress is the sign that someone is a genuine man or woman with real respect for Almighty God and his/her fellow human beings.

Edward Fido | 22 December 2020