October 5, 2015  —  by

Interview with the first hijabi model, Mariah Idrissi

credit: Instagram

Mariah Idrissi is the young model of Moroccan and Pakistani heritage that shook the fashion world by appearing in an international campaign wearing a Hijab. Strong willed and self-confident, besides modelling Mariah owns a henna beauty salon, Salon Marrakesh, in London and in the past she dedicated to Nasheed, a type of Islamic poetry, and worked for the British Islamic Channel. Many articles have been written about her participation in the H&M campaign “Close to the Loop” and most of them present she as the first international Hijabi model.

How did you start modelling?

I don’t actually model (laugh). It was the first time I’ve done something like this, I mean, for a very big company.

What does it mean to be a Hijabi model?

It’s amazing because I never realized I was. I see so many Hijabi models in the Islamic world so actually see it finally becoming more mainstream… it’s like a big achievement. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

How did you receive the media attention to you after the H&M video?

It’s good. I’m quite used to it. I used to do poetry and TV work for the Islamic Channel. It’s taking a lot of time in my life right now, but it’s cool.

In the past few years brands like DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger or Mango, have addressed specific campaigns to Middle East countries, but with no real repercussion on mainstream fashion trends. Let’s say H&M commercial was unprecedented. What do you think is the response of international mainstream fashion to Hijabi modelling?

I think it’s a mixed response. Mostly positive I’d say, but of course there are going to be negative [responses] from both the Muslim and the non-Muslim side, unfortunately. Ultimately I’m becoming quite offended now in a way that it hasn’t been done, I mean all these retailers speak about diversity, of course you have seen a black girl modelling, you’ve seen a gay or a lesbian, you have seen all kind of diversity and only in 2015 you see a woman in a Hijab. So, I think it’s really bad that it hadn’t been done until now, so hopefully this is not just one off and I’ll try to continue to do modelling for major retailers. To make sure it is done. Forever (laugh).

On the other hand, what do you think is the response of the Muslim community to your participation in an international fashion campaign?

Well, it’s mixed, mostly positive, but there are some of them fundamentalists who don’t agree with what I’m doing, but everyone’s got an opinion so I just leave it at that them (laugh).

There are many Muslim women living in European countries, what do you think the opportunity of being represented by brands like H&M means to them?

I think it’s incredible because, like I said, it should have been done before. It’s such a big marketing community; there are so many Muslim women that shop at major retailers, like myself. So, I think it’s really important that retailers now started trying to market to us as well because it benefits them, in terms of money, and it benefits us as well, so we feel included into this fashion world rather than always be in our own little Muslim fashion industry. You know, everything I wear in normal days is from major retailers.

Shifting to western women, do you think Hijabi fashion can be of inspiration to them?

Definitely, because there are so many women, not just Muslim, that choose to dress modestly. For whatever reason they have, there are many women who don’t want to show their bodies. So to have this option now, where we’re actually demonstrating in modest clothes publicly, it will not only include Muslim women to be buying and spending more money, but there will also be non-Muslim women who just want to dress modestly and it makes women feel more liberated in a way, that you actually don’t have to dress in a particular way to feel sexy or beautiful. I can be a model, I can be a woman who’s still attractive and who still feels good at herself and I’m not showing my body. It’s just an opinion, I mean, if a woman wants to show her body that’s fine, that’s a respectful choice, but at the same time if a woman doesn’t want to, it shouldn’t be seen as a whole different market. We should still be included.

In a period marked by the questioning of Muslims’ integration in western society, do you think this opening of international mainstream fashion toward Islamic aesthetics is symptomatic of a more generalized opening to Islamic culture?

Yes. That’s my aim! It goes beyond fashion: it’s so much more. It’s going to naturally come with politics, it’s going to naturally come with general society problem that we have. Even today in a western country you may find it difficult for women to get a job with a Hijab, and to make Hijabs more normal in the fashion world, to be able to see it more in the media, more in the public eye, naturally everything will conform and will become normal in every area. Now, for a woman hopeful to get a job wearing a Hijab, it won’t be seen as “oh she’s a certain type of way or certain look, it’s going to be difficult for us to hire her”, it will be accepted as something normal, you know, it’s something that is still embracing diversity.

Do you think that fashion campaigns, like the H&M’s one, are actually making a point about Muslim women’s representation in European societies, or a more politicized action is needed?

I think we need not so much of a political action, but it would definitely touch it. In the sense that it’s more socially like, for example, getting a job, it’s a problem that we still have… And naturally when I do interviews they do not ask me entirely about fashion, they often ask of the political side or of the religious side. Hijab it’s not just a fashion thing it is spiritual, it’s something that is part of our fate so it’s understandable that you know they’re going to question me and I’ll be representing not just a fashion figure, but of course that I’ll be representing something political as well.

Do you think that this shift in representation in fashion, advertising or television is actually helping Muslim women to get a space in our society?

Yes, it’s helping. This H&M campaign using me definitely I believe it’s helping it. It’s opening people’s eyes now, even opening my own eyes. I’m surprised I didn’t stop and think one day why on earth do we never see Muslim specialized models modelling for mainstream fashion because they do model anyway, it’s not that they don’t. If you’re going to the Islamic world, in Islamic fashion, they all have their own fashion shows and catwalk models and whatever, but then they’re not doing this in the mainstream model, and I don’t understand why.