Halima Mahmoud, a 22-year-old senior studying at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., was crowned Ms. Rutgers in the 2015 pageant. The announcement came at midnight in Rutgers University’s Essex room, which was flooded with college students, the majority of whom were dressed in all white as per the theme of the event.
Mahmoud, a black Muslim woman who dons the hijab, was one of five women who competed in the Ms. Rutgers Pageant. Wearing a long-sleeved, white lace dress and a red hijab decorated with glowing head jewelry, Mahmoud said she felt humbled when being crowned.
“I began thinking to myself, ‘What does this mean?’” Mahmoud said. “I thought to myself, ‘A Muslim woman won homecoming; a black Muslim woman won homecoming.’”
Mahmoud, who comes from a Ghanaian and Togolese background, is the first hijab-wearing woman to win the Ms. Rutgers pageant in Rutgers’ recent history, according to Tricia Defreitas, President of Program Board. As Ms. Rutgers, she is expected to attend several Rutgers events and games, representing the Rutgers student body.
“Mahmoud’s victory sent out a very positive message to the student body,” Defreitas said. “It testifies to the diversity of our campus and sends a very encouraging message.”
Mahmoud is known among her peers for her spoken word, social activism, and engagement in religious activities. She explains that she was inspired to run for the pageant because, although she had competed for positions in the past, she had never competed in an event as big as homecoming.
“I wasn’t always confident in myself, but I built up my confidence during my time at Rutgers,” Mahmoud said. “I’m also starting to learn my limits and I’m pushing myself beyond them, so when I heard about the call for pageants, I told myself, ‘Why not, Halima?’”
“I did this for myself,” Mahmoud said. “But I also did this, first and foremost, for my Muslim sisters. We tend to confine ourselves to certain circles or activities because society has convinced us that we aren’t worth particular things or that we don’t belong.”
Mahmoud, who is active in several social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, emphasized that black women and hijabi women should not feel that they cannot reach the platform they aim for because of their skin color or their hijab.
“I won’t say that anything is possible,” Mahmoud said. “Unfortunately, a lot of social structures make some things impossible for us, but be determined and be persistent. Be yourself and don’t give up your identity or your persona. We can change the narrative surrounding Muslim women together. Spread your wings. Try different things.”
In claiming victory, Mahmoud defied universal beauty standards that celebrate the fair-skinned, slim, and silky-haired woman.
“I’m making a statement,” Mahmoud said. “Whatever any woman can do, black women and Muslim women can do it better. Despite all the rocks on my road, still, I rise.”
Written by Dina Sayedahmed
Photos by Habeebah Yasin