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How Rawdah Mohamed is challenging modest style conventions and fashion’s inclusivity problem

Friday March 22, 2019
By Laird Borrelli-Persson

At Copenhagen Fashion Week [I wanted] to push my boundaries to see if I could still be fashionable when it was very cold and I still had to do all the layering. [Here I’m in a] chainmail medieval armor hood with a tulle skirt. I added the bomber jacket to make it look more urban. Photographed by Acielle / Style du Monde

As a number of designers were heralding a return to glamour on the runways this season, Rawdah Mohamed, a 27-year-old Somali influencer living in Norway, was delivering it on the streets in the form of face-framing feathers, dramatic eyewear, and even a medieval-style mesh snood, all of which she wore with a hijab. Grandeur suits Mohamed, a healthcare professional working with autistic children, who can trace the start of her international street style career back to last August when she attended Oslo’s Spring 2019 season; between shows, she found time to sign as a model, due to her striking features and unconventional style. Mohamed was active on Instagram before that, though, followed mainly by modest-dressing Muslim women who were intrigued by her ability to take readily available pieces—from H&M or Zara, say—and pair them chicly in what she calls an East-West mix.

Mohamed’s foray onto the international show circuit has not been easy; Paris did not reveal itself as a City of Light to this influencer, attending the shows there last month for the first time. From negative body language to the intense scrutiny she received for entrance to shows, despite carrying an invitation in hand, Mohamed discovered that discrimination remained rampant, even with the strides that have been made in terms of diversified casting. “I really wanted [fashion] to be a place where I could just be myself and everyone would just accept me for who I am,” she says. “I was very sad to realize that, no, this is yet another place where I still have to fight to be me and to be able to free to dress however I like and to look however I like.”

Mohamed, who has worn a hijab since she was about 7 years old, has been fighting this fight since she moved to a small town in Norway. The bullying she was subjected too, however, only strengthened her resolve to wearing the hijab. “I never really liked the idea of having to adjust the way I speak or the way I look just because it makes other people uncomfortable,” she says. “I just continued wearing it and it sort of became my shield and something I was proud of.” In so doing Mohamed has unintentionally become a role model—an exemplar of a modern day Muslim woman wearing fashion clothes. For Mohamed, the hijab is a form of expression, not oppression. “I’m definitely using it to make a statement that, yes, I’m a Muslim woman, I’m doing this, and you guys have to deal with it—just like I was using it when I was a kid growing up with my hijab. I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing with fashion. Deep down I’m hoping [by my doing this] it will be easier for other girls.”

Here, Mohamed speaks to Vogue about her unabashed love of glamour and fighting for real inclusivity in the fashion world.

In Oslo in the coolest blazer from H&M, desperately asking if my babysitter can stay for two more hours. Photographed by Acielle / Style du Monde

When did you start wearing a hijab?
I’ve been wearing it since I’ve been a first-grader, I think. I used to wear it back in [Somalia] and I wore it when I came to Norway. I’ve never taken it off. I didn’t think much of it because in my home country everyone was wearing it, it was part of the uniform so you didn’t really think much about it. The only ones that were not wearing it were the Christians, so it was just like, ‘Okay, this is what we do.’

What was the reaction to your hijab in Norway?
Norway is a small country and I came to a very small town. Because of my hijab and because of my skin color—we were the few black people in the community, and you know some of my classmates had never seen black people before—so it was very, very difficult and obviously there was a lot of bullying but I think [that] made me continue to wear it. The adults in my life were saying, ‘If it helps with the bullying maybe you can take it off, or maybe you can wear it in a different style that’s not as covering,’ but I didn’t want the bullies to win. I didn’t want them to have such power over my life.

I used to think, Why do I have to change? I’m not telling them to change. You know, I think they look weird but that’s fine, I look weird to them, too. I never really liked the idea of having to adjust the way I speak or the way I look just because it makes other people uncomfortable. I can’t change the way I look, even if I take off my hijab, I’m still black and you know I can’t change that. So then what? I just continued wearing it and it sort of became my shield and something I was proud of. I had all this pressure, [people] were telling me, ‘This is not good enough. This is not how we want you to be,’ and I kept wearing it and it just became part of my identity, it was who I was and everyone just had to deal with it.

In Paris in a transparent asymmetrical skirt by Deat on top of a two-piece jacket and skirt, and a transparent ball-shaped bag. Photo: Ludovic Pieterson / Courtesy of Rawdah Mohamed

How would you describe your style?
I think I would say, modern, modest, and maybe a little bit daring. I want my style to be something a little out of the norm, especially when it comes to my hijab. That’s what I was trying to do this season, I didn’t want it to just be plain [and] boring, I wanted to add headpieces to my hijab to make it more fashionable. I wanted to make it more like an art. That’s how I found the medieval headpiece and other hats and all those things. When people look at me the first thing they notice about me and my identity is my hijab, so I thought, okay, this is what every photographer is going to capture, this is what’s going to be in the pictures, so I wanted to build my outfits around the headpiece for this season.

Putting on my game face: There’s nothing some black lipstick can’t fix. Photo: Ludovic Pieterson / Courtesy of Rawdah Mohamed

Glamour was a talking point of the Fall season and you really delivered it. How do you work it into your look?
Modest dressing is always portrayed as something boring [and it can be] difficult to add glamour to it because sometimes there’s no shape to whatever you’re wearing and layering makes it even harder. Glamour forces you to work with whatever you have; it’s a bit tricky but I love that challenge and I loved seeing it on the runway because now I have all this inspiration, now I have something that I can work on and it’s something that is available to me now.

With each outfit change there is also a makeup change. Go big or go home. Photo: Ludovic Pieterson / Courtesy of Rawdah Mohamed

You’re also very interested in beauty….
I taught myself how to do my makeup. I grew up in a small town there weren’t any foundations in my color. When my aunties who live in America came to Norway for holiday, they used to bring us [some]. Now there are all these brands that [provide products for a broad range of skin tones] so now I can become more like an artist. It’s not as limiting as it used to be before and for me that makes it much more fun, you know I like to do the colors, do the glitter…. I want [my look] to be the way I envisioned it; I don’t want it to be less because the makeup brands are not making makeup for me. But now I feel very lucky to have all these brands that [do and] I like to take advantage of it. I think because I’ve been waiting for it for so long, now that I have the opportunity, I sometimes go all crazy because I’m very excited about it.

Can you talk about layering in terms of modesty and Scandinavian style?
It’s very cold here most of the year so you have to add some layering into it [your style but] for me it’s mostly about modesty. If I buy a long maxi skirt, it usually has a split to the side, and not actually quite what I’m looking for in my modest dressing, so sometimes I have to add jeans or wide-legged pants underneath to cover the split, or I would have to sew in the split. I live in Scandinavia and I’m obviously interested by the style here, which I also love, so I think I’m lucky because I can do the Scandi style, which is in the stores here, and I can still do modest.

Do you incorporate any Somali dress traditions into your wardrobe?
Not [so much] the actual clothes. I’m African, and you know we are very colorful in our cultural clothes; I like to [wear] colors because of my heritage. [I might choose] an orange hijab, or if I can find a cultural print, I like to do that with the hijab. I do those looks more in the summer than in the winter. We have this dress called dirac; we wear it when we go to weddings and if there’s a festival because its very glamorous. I had some shiny silver [Dirac fabric] made into a skirt [that I wore in Paris with] a black denim miniskirt on top. I had to tone it down it a bit because the skirt is very glittery, a bit too much and I was wearing that as a day look.

A full-on denim look in Paris. I’m wearing a skirt with an irregular hem with a denim jacket from Shengpalae, which is a Korean brand, and snowboard sunglasses. Photographed by Phil Oh

How did you start blogging?
I just wanted to capture my outfits because they were so different. My page was private [at first]. My friends were encouraging me to go public just to see how the feedback would be from people who didn’t know me and so at the end of 2016, or maybe even the beginning of 2017, I made it public and then from then on it kind of just grew. Most of the followers I had at the beginning were Muslim girls and they liked the fact that I was using Western clothes, the stuff that you buy from the shops here, and making them more modest; kind of like how East meets West.

[I’m a] modern day Muslim woman wearing the fashion clothes that are in the the magazines and that are trending. I think Muslim women appreciated that because then they had something to look at because they were not getting that from campaigns and magazines and other online sources. They would ask me, ‘Where did you get this coat?’ And I would say I just got it from my local store, and they would go buy it. It just sort of gave them an idea of how to style the clothes that were actually available for them and not something that was shipped from their home country or the stuff they usually get when they are on holiday. I was using the clothes that were selling in Norway and that I would buy from London that were accessible for everyone to get.

Me attending a fashion show for the first time [in Olso]. I was a bit shy and I didn’t know if I could truly do it the way I wanted to do it. I didn’t know if I could be the optimal version of me. Photographed by Acielle / Style du Monde

What was the tipping point in your social career?
I think definitely the turning point was when I did Oslo Fashion Week [Spring 2019] because then I entered the Western world of fashion; before it used to be women in Africa, Asia, or the Arab countries who were my following. When I Went to Oslo Fashion Week that’s sort of when I introduced myself to the Western world. That’s when I met my manager. When I first [signed], it was for modeling. I told them, ‘Modeling is fine, but I also want to sign with you as an influencer as well. I think it’s Oslo Fashion Week that made it happen for me. Photographers and people in fashion were coming up to me and giving me compliments, that was really good for me because [it was my] first time and I was a bit shy and I didn’t know if I could truly do it the way I wanted to do it. I didn’t know if I could be the optimal version of me. I was just testing it and I tried to be a little more daring when I went to Copenhagen Fashion Week [for Fall 2019].

[Now] I have a lot of people who are not Muslims who are following me. I think it has something to do with the fashion week. I attract other people who also dress modestly. I have a lot of following from American Christian communities who are not Muslims but wear modest clothes. I [also] have all these people now asking me stuff basic stuff about being a Muslim. What makes me really happy is to see that other people—not just from my country or my religion—[following me] because want my account to be for everyone not just for certain people.

Are you a role model?
I don’t consider myself to be it, but I know I am; that’s what my followers are telling me and that is something I have to be considerate of when I dress because I just wear in whatever I like and what’s in my style, I don’t think much about how this is going to influence other people.

Can you talk about your first Paris Fashion Week?
Discrimination is something that always happens to me in my daily life. Now being in the fashion scene, a place where you know everyone is creative, I was hoping that people would be more open minded and more accepting of other ethnicities, other religions, and the way other people dress. I was hoping that it could be a place of escape for me. So it was a little bit of a shock to see the reaction, although I feel like I should have known. I was in denial, hoping for the best and when I got some of the reactions that I did I was very disappointed because I really wanted [fashion] to be a place where I could just be myself and everyone would just accept me for who I am. I was very sad to realize that, no, this is yet another place where I still have to fight to be me and to be able to free to dress however I like and to look however I like.

I’m forever late and always on the run. Photo: Ludovic Pieterson / Courtesy of Rawdah Mohamed

What kind of behaviors?
It can be body language or, for instance, when you’re going into a show they would double check your invitation and make you stand on the side while other people are coming in and they’re not checking their invitations as much. It’s like you have the exact same invitation, [and] your name is on it. Sometimes they would ask for your ID and nobody else needs the ID but they need to double make sure that you are who you are who you say you are, and sometimes they would check your ID and your name and they would call another person or their manager or whoever it is to double check that info again. Or it can just be simple things, as when you go up to order a drink or whatever, and you’re being ignored. It’s all these things that are very unnecessary. You know, it’s the small things you pick up during the whole day at every fashion show and at the end it just gets very exhausting.

What are your thoughts on diversity, or the lack of it, in street style?
I saw that Teen Vogue was doing a story on diversity for Paris Fashion Week. I read the article and I think that was really good. It was a very positive thing to see and it sort of gave me hope in the very hopeless situation I was in. I kept coming across all these negative comments and people’s behavior so to see that was like a light in a dark moment so I really appreciated that.

Here I am just casually laughing at my own dry jokes while my French friend Shymene just wants to buy her fresh fruits in peace. Photo: Ludovic Pieterson / Courtesy of Rawdah Mohamed

You’ve said that the media usually portray Muslim women as oppressed and without a voice. It seems that you are using your hijab as a form of free expression. Would you agree with that assessment?
Yes, definitely, definitely. People make us feel like we don’t belong, and I think the way for me to use fashion is [to say]: ‘I’m here, and I’m here with my hijab, and I belong here as much as you guys do, I deserve to have the same opportunities as you.’ When I speak with other bloggers, they don’t have to worry about these things. They’re allowed to enjoy fashion week, they’re allowed to come and just be themselves and no one is questioning them and nobody’s making them doubt themselves. And so I’m definitely using it to make a statement that, yes, I’m a Muslim woman, I’m doing this, and you guys have to deal with it—just like I was using it when I was a kid growing up with my hijab. I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing with fashion.

Deep down I think I’m hoping [by doing this] it will be easier for other girls to dress however they want and be whoever they want without having to go through what I went through, just like other women in the past have worked hard and have gone through the harshness just so we can vote or so we can have an education. I mean I’m not as great as them, but if there’s any way that I can help the next generation then of course [I want to do that]. Thinking about something that is much bigger than me and the way I want to dress helps me stay positive. It’s about the women who are coming after, and for me that makes it very easy to deal with the negatives. I think this is just a small sacrifice that I have to do, the picture is much bigger, and that gives me hope.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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