The Faces of Modest Fashion

Is there a gap in the market for hijabi models in the MENA region?

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Ikram Abdi Omar. Aminah Ali. Rawdah Mohamed. Feriel Moulai. Mariah Idrissi. Billy Marsal. These are some of the empowered women who cover their hair and are experiencing fame both in the modeling world and on social media. They all reside in Europe, and have worked for high-end labels, luxury fashion publications and popular e-commerce platforms. Then of course there’s Halima Aden, the Somali-American refugee who pioneered the path for mainstream hijabi fashion models in an industry that historically hasn’t been very inclusive – especially when it comes to representing and designing for Muslim women. 

In the Middle East meanwhile, where hijabi women are in abundance, those featured in regional fashion campaigns are rarely professional and authentic hijab-wearing models – rather, retailers tend to hire standard, often Caucasian, models, and simply style them with headscarves when the need for extra modesty arises. Ironically, it’s in the West, and not the East, where hijabi models are flourishing.

Junaynah El Guthmy is an exception, having modeled for Puma, Calvin Klein and Level Shoes, along with a handful or regional labels. She agrees that the Middle East is lacking when it comes to pro-hijabi models: “There’s definitely a gap – one widened by a taboo of women in the spotlight, a glorification of Western beauty standards in the Arab world (ironic I know) and a lack of drive,” explains El Guthmy. “Many girls want to ‘be a hijab wearing model,’ but very few want to go through the not-so-glamorous road that leads to it. It’s a hustle no different to any other.”

Junaynah El Guthmy and Engy Mahdy for Modestish. Makeup by Sarah Sequeira. Photography by Qash Abbas at Broomstick Creative

In the West, entrepreneurial women have set up agencies and networks such as Ummah models, Muslim Sisterhood and Under Wraps, which are dedicated to diverse and authentic representation, providing brands with models and brand ambassadors from Muslim and modest demographics. No such concepts exist in the Middle East, where there are Muslim women aplenty with untapped potential for modest modeling.  

El Guthmy, who dreams of working for brands like Schiaparelli, Alexander McQueen and Versace, says that hijabi models shouldn’t expect any sort of special treatment due to identifying with modest fashion or covering their hair. “Unfortunately, there’s a sense of entitlement by many girls who want to model – I think that slightly stems from the root of Arab culture itself,” she says. “The reality is that just being modest doesn’t make you special, we just have to accept that we need to do more.”

“The path into modeling isn’t clear, and it can be discouraging on the outside… it requires a lot of emotional investment,” continues El Guthmy. “If you really want to be recognized, you’re going to have to work four times as hard as everyone else.” She lists attending castings, collaborating with different stylists and photographers, making connections and networking “until everyone knows who you are” as key steps to finding success.

With the global spotlight on modesty, diversity and inclusivity, the time is ripe for modestly dressed women who have the ambition and passion to explore a career in modeling. Those in the wider industry would be wise to realize this gap in the market, and work to set up frameworks to support, cultivate and promote these rising talents.