When Halima Aden arrived to the Muslim Girl Iftar in New York City during Ramadan, she did so in true Muslim Girl style: a head-to-toe hot pink pantsuit with matching sky-high heels, flawless hijab framing those famous dimples, and her best friend by her side. When I was looking for her moments earlier after a Soho House staffer accidentally told her the venue wasn’t open yet, we found her getting her tea fix next door — of course.
It was one of her first speaking engagements back after her headline-making exit from the fashion industry that was heard the world over. And, maybe unlike the teenager that was plucked from the stages of a beauty pageant and thrust into the high-caliber echelons of one of the most notoriously exclusive industries in the world, Halima is ready.
When I first met Halima, it was on the set of her first Teen Vogue shoot. She was jumping on a trampoline with other models. Even though we never met in person yet, as soon as I walked into the room she hopped right off and ran over to me with the biggest hug. “I grew up on Muslim Girl. I feel like I know you already,” she said. That was my first real moment understanding who Halima is: a bright young woman that bonds with sisterhood wherever she can find it. She knows who she is, where she is and who she needs standing by her side. And we’ve witnessed that becoming a core part of her experience over the years, from walking among giants to walking away from it all if it means staying true to herself.
After a three year hiatus, Halima is enjoying her full circle moment: she became the first hijabi model to ever grace a Vogue cover with Vogue Arabia, and now her triumphant return is ushered in by their May 2023 cover story. In her interview with Muslim Girl founder Amani on the new Uncovered podcast, the fashion icon opens up about imposter syndrome, sisterhood and her epic comeback.
AMANI: As soon as you came back into the picture, you’ve had project after project – and now you’re gracing us with this editorial. It really shook some people to see you go straight from leaving the fashion industry to landing another Vogue cover. What was different about this Halima than the Halima that posed for her first-ever Vogue cover and what has changed?
HALIMA: A lot. For one, I’m not 19 anymore, I’m 25. I took a three-year break and that was intentional. And alhamdulillah, the last three years really made me stronger and more confident in myself and my voice. Coming back, there was just this confidence that I didn’t have the first time around. I really didn’t have this feeling of calmness because I had already done this before.
The first time around, I was new to it. It’s a completely different world than where I come from. I was just navigating and falling through life and I’m grateful for the team I had back then — they helped me get to the point where I am today — and I’m grateful for the team I have now. It’s really women who lift me both personally and professionally. I have a big team. I think you met a couple of my team members, but it’s a huge team. So I feel very grateful to the women on my team. And this time around, I feel more at ease.
AMANI: I remember during one of those phone calls after your exit when you and I spoke. You asked me, “Amani, I feel this pressure to dive back into things, but I feel like I might need some more time to focus on myself and where I’m at.” And I remember telling you, “Take all the time that you need. People are going to embrace you with arms wide open whenever you decide that it’s the right time for your comeback.” And it’s kind of like witnessing that come to fruition right now.
HALIMA: I was 19 when I started. When you’re young, you’re new to something. I needed it to happen. It led me to this exact moment, and I’m not mad. We did well back then, and now I love that for sure. I mean, everything happens for a reason, and I couldn’t have said it better, you know? Different experiences are meant to give you those lessons that you’re intended to pick up along the way. So I think that’s really beautiful.
AMANI: How do you feel about sisterhood and how it impacts everyday life?
HALIMA: Oh my God, I could not have done it without my sisters. They play a big role. You need a good group of women, whether they are family, professionals, or mentors. You need a solid group of women in your circle that uplift you and keep you on track, being honest with you, both the good and the bad. I think that’s 100% the secret sauce to success.
My sister Sakina came with me to the Muslim Girl Iftar. I’ve had so many moments with her throughout the last seven years where I would just call her and we would talk it out, and she would drop all these insights. It doesn’t matter that we’re not in the same industry or that we don’t do the same work or live in the same state. She just knows me. She knows my heart, and I’m not afraid to call her, and vice versa.
AMANI: Have you ever felt imposter syndrome being in these spaces? How has that affected you, being oftentimes the only woman that looks like you in a certain room?
HALIMA: I definitely think that’s normal, and sometimes imposter syndrome is a sign that you’re doing something good. The times that I feel it are the times when I’m like, wow, am I even worthy of this cover shoot? I was like, “Am I really worthy of this opportunity?” And I have to remind myself, “Yeah, you worked really hard. This is a blessing that was sent to you. These are teams that believe in you.” And so, you just have to remind yourself why it’s happening. And then that alleviates those anxieties of, “Did I do a good enough job? Am I worthy? Am I deserving of this opportunity?”
I think that’s completely normal, and it’s no different than even when I got my acceptance letter and I knew I was going to be the first in my family to pursue higher education. I remember thinking, “Well, is this right? Am I good enough? Can I really handle all these feelings that come to the surface?” And it’s just a sign that you’re absolutely doing the right thing.
AMANI: Unfortunately, our community is not the best when it comes to accepting Muslim women, particularly when they achieve exceptional success in fields like fashion. Do you think the Muslim community has projected judgment onto you during your journey, especially because it’s in the fashion industry?
HALIMA: This time around, I’m not focusing on the negative judgments. If people want to judge me, they can go ahead. I have no control over that. However, what I do see is the excitement, love, and support I’m receiving. So that’s what I choose to focus on. I’m in a positive headspace and time in my life where people will always have something to say, regardless of what I do. You can’t please everybody, and that’s just how the world is. But I’m okay with that. I choose to embrace the love, support, and positivity, and I ignore the rest.
AMANI: You mentioned prior to me that it was one of the sentiments appearing on social media when you decided to leave fashion, like, “Oh, Halima is going to ruin it for the rest of us.” But the truth is, in Islam, we believe that what’s meant for you is written. What was meant for you, you will never miss. And what wasn’t meant for you, you will never reach. When I think about stories like yours, especially with the way you have moved and the decisions you’ve made, your story is so powerful that truly no one else could have walked in your shoes or experienced this the way you have. There was a reason why it was Halima Aden who was plucked out of a lineup in a beauty pageant, the one who ended up on the cover, the one who took us on the journey with her. It was meant for you. And I think it’s so obvious when you look back in retrospect.
HALIMA: All of this had to happen this way. I didn’t go seeking modeling. It came to me, and then I took a break and left the industry. Then I found myself again, and I’m ready this time. I’m more appreciative. And I feel, for the first time, like this is meant for me. Because for a long time, it really was like, am I? I was just lost. I was lost, and I wish I would have been more graceful towards myself, like, “You’re absolutely worthy of this opportunity.” And so, I think this time around, I’m entering that headspace of strength and confidence and belonging. I’m excited to see what the next three years are going to look like and have this conversation again in three years, to see what all happened and what panned out. It really is an exciting time.
This interview excerpt has been edited for conciseness and clarity. Edited by Zainab Khan and Maysoon Khatib.