As the audience filed into the Great Hall Friday evening, the scene was reminiscent of a high fashion show. A sea of black ties, floor-length gowns and multi-colored hijabs filled the room — even a hot-pink bedazzled cowboy hat made its way through the crowd.
Muslim supermodel Halima Aden walked on stage to cheers from the audience.
Every year, UNC Muslim Students Association hosts an event called MSA Live, which features a discussion on a meaningful topic of faith with an influential Muslim figure. Aden, known for starring on the covers of Vogue Arabia, British Vogue and Sports Illustrated, was the featured speaker at this year's event.
Aden's discussion was entitled “Navigating Faith and Fortune: Working in this World for the Next," where she spoke about her decision to take a step back from her modeling career to focus on her faith in November 2020.
Aden's work now continues to focus on awareness and visibility for refugees and Muslim women.
“As a Muslim girl who wears a headscarf, you face all of these struggles about fitting in," senior Saratu Garba, an emcee for Friday’s event, said. "People are always looking at you, making comments, so seeing such a powerful icon in the fashion industry try to show everybody that it’s okay to take a step back to focus on your spirituality is very touching to me."
Like Garba, some attendees said they saw pieces of their own story in Aden’s faith journey and her experience growing up as a Somali refugee.
“We are originally from the same country. She’s a Somali-American and so am I,” Habon Ahmed, the mother of a recent UNC graduate, said.
Ahmed said it felt good to hear Aden tell her story, noting some of the similarities in the trajectory of their journeys to the United States.
"This is my home, this is my country," Ahmed said. "Every time I travel, I get goosebumps when I return. I came here in 1984, didn’t speak English, went to school, worked hard and I love it."
Aden also said in her speech that she didn't speak English when she moved to the U.S., and she emphasized the positive impact her education had on her.
“When I started modeling, my family didn’t approve, but my mom made me promise I’d pray on set,” Aden said.
At first, Aden said this is exactly what she did — even when she faced shock and disrespect from those around her. She said she felt a pressure to conform.
“Then I started making exceptions," Aden said. "I started to lose part of my Muslim identity, which was a test I felt I’d failed.”
Aden then turned her attention to the audience.
“How many of you have struggled with your faith?” she asked.
Nearly everyone raised their hand.
“Trying to practice Islam the way that you want in a country you’re stigmatized in can be very difficult," Dalal Azzam, vice president of UNC MSA, said. "To see someone so big-named doing this, it’s made us all feel like we can do it. Halima shows that you can still be passionate and achieve your dreams while carrying your faith."
Aden closed her speech with some simple advice for attendees.
“Be proud of who you are and don’t feel the pressure to shrink your hijab. The right people should accept you for who you are,” Aden said. “We are small in numbers, but we are resilient. We are out here doing amazing things.”
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