“We Need More Space To Be Open”: Somali model Rawdah on speaking out for those who can’t

Tuesday June 16, 2020

“People shouldn’t be able to chip away at who I am or who you are,” says behavioural analyst, model and street-style star, Rawdah, of blazing a trail of openness and acceptance within the fashion industry.

Meet Rawdah: a 28-year-old Somali model, who juggles her career in front of the camera with her day job as a behavioural analyst working with mentally disabled people. Since she found herself climbing the fashion ladder “by accident”, Rawdah has used her platform to speak out for marginalised communities who are not afforded the same opportunities to be heard.

“For most of my childhood, my skin and my hijab were seen by others in a negative light,” she tells British Vogue via Zoom from Norway, where she still resides, following her family’s move to Scandinavia from Somalia when Rawdah was eight. “I have always had to defend the way I look and it’s exhausting, but it has never impacted my job in healthcare.” She signed with The Society Management to “try and change this judgement within the fashion industry.” Rawdah’s medical employer gave her a flexible contract, so that she could pursue her mission of asking the fashion industry to look inwards and become more accepting.

On shoots, Rawdah is the vibrant individual who brings everyone together. When she suspects her colleagues might feel awkward about respectfully navigating a hijabi Muslim woman’s social boundaries, she purposefully talks to them. “It’s not my job to educate people,” she explains. “But I make a habit of ensuring conversations around my religion are as open as possible. I have thick skin and I don’t mind answering uncomfortable questions.”

It has not always been this way. As a child, she had to sit in front of six teachers and her parents while they discussed her personal decision to wear a hijab. Taking it off would perhaps stop the bullying, they said. “I was traumatised by the hatred people felt towards my hijab,” she remembers. “I couldn’t stand the thought of an outsider making another human being feel that small about a choice they had made.”

Rawdah’s (often printed and vibrant) hijabs are an outward display of her religious beliefs, but also an extension of her love of fashion. Growing up in a refugee camp, she was allowed to buy clothes once a year. Rawdah always chose a special dress to wear for Eid, the biannual Islam holiday. “I was so obsessive about that one dress!” she says. Since then, others have projected their own preconceptions about what a Muslim woman should wear onto Rawdah. “Because my hijab has always been in the spotlight, I thought, ‘Let’s make it look cute!’” she shares. “But others think you’re not supposed to be [a] modern person when you’re wearing it – you’re supposed to [wear] it for God.” Rawdah counters those conservative opinions with her belief that, “My God loves beautiful things.”

Her willingness to stay true to herself as well as her religion has impacted the lives of other Muslim girls and young women, who, after seeing Rawdah on the cover of magazines, have since been allowed to buy fashion publications. It has also, she says, encouraged other models to consider their own boundaries within the industry. “Just as I would never take my hijab off, other girls have considered whether or not they would, for example, take their tops off on a shoot,” she says. “Limits are important.” Fashion should not come at a moral cost.

Rawdah’s mission to shake up beauty and fashion standards through honest conversations extends beyond race and religion, to oppressions around gender and sexuality. “I speak out for my trans sisters because my culture does not accept trans Muslim people,” explains Rawdah. “There is no point in me having justice if they don’t have it.” She has also spoken about her own sexuality (she believed she was a lesbian for a stage of her early adulthood), because, “We need more space to be open”. “I should be able to tell you who I am and you should be OK with it,” she says. “People shouldn’t be able to chip away at who I am or who you are.”