“I ain’t no kendall jenner but I’m a black muslim girl from east london that’s about to finesse the modelling industry”.
Those are the words of a tweet penned in November last year by Shahira Yusuf, known in the fashion world only as Shahira, that has been shared almost 60,000 times.
At 20 years old and standing tall at 5’11, the Londoner is one of a handful of Muslim models who proudly wears the hijab as she sashays down the runway.
In recent years, model agencies have recruited a few young, visibly Muslim women in a bid to both capitalise on the Muslim market and to increase diversity on the catwalk.
|Shahira Yusuf was discovered on the streets of London by a prominent talent scout [Courtesy: Felicity Ingram]|
Shahira’s turn came when she was 17, when she was approached in the streets of London by Sarah Doukas, the founder of Storm Model Management, an agency which represents some of the world’s most recognisable faces.
Al Jazeera spoke to Shahira, who has Somali origins, about the moment she was discovered, her concerns about the world and why she doesn’t resent labels.
On the meaning behind that viral tweet …
“I get asked this very frequently, and I understand it can be interpreted in different ways.
But the tweet simply meant, I am not a model that comes from a tremendously successful, nor privileged background, but I am a Black Muslim that is going to take the industry by storm.”
On representation in the fashion industry …
“I do feel that the fashion industry has made some changes, but I don’t think it’d be right to conclude ‘Yes! Tthe fashion industry is representative!’ just because improvements have been made.
I do believe that an effort is being made, especially in recent times, though there’s a lot more that can be done.
Equal representation of models of different ethnic and religious backgrounds is about being completely inclusive. You shouldn’t pick and choose when to be inclusive.
In my personal opinion, I feel like there’s more representation within mainstream fashion than high-end fashion. And you often see the drastic differences in campaigns or runway shows.
For me, equal representation of models of different ethnic and religious backgrounds is about being completely inclusive. You shouldn’t pick and choose when to be inclusive, it should be something that’s a no-brainer and always done. Unfortunately, something that’s so easy to do, isn’t practised to the degree that it should be. It should be a norm, not a trend.
On being discovered …
“I was scouted at the age of 17 by the founder of Storm Model Management, Sarah Doukas. I was with a friend just casually strolling down the streets of central London, and Sarah must have tapped me on the shoulder and asked me some questions, such as if I modelled, ever considered modelling, and if I wanted to.
I was very confused, it all happened so fast but I remember at the time saying I wasn’t really interested.
|Shahira Yusuf says she will continue to use her platform to rally about the issues that concern her [Courtesy: Ronan Mckenzie]|
I was only 17, and for some reason, I was scouted frequently. To this day I still am, so I didn’t really think too much of it. I was given a scout card but did not take the opportunity up until late 2017, at age 20.
I remember approaching Storm with my sister and it felt so surreal at first. But the agents made me feel welcome immediately, and I pretty much became a Storm model that day.”
On whether labels should be resented or celebrated …
“I guess it’s dependent upon the label I’m given. Of course, if it’s Muslim, ‘hijabi’ and black, for instance, I cannot resent it. It makes me who I am, and I’m very proud of who I am. So why would I resent it?
However, I understand that for some people they don’t agree with being categorised under labels, but labels such as those are what makes up one’s identity.”
On concerns about the world …
“Honestly, what am I not concerned about should be the question. As sad as it is, there are way more things many of us are concerned about than not concerned about.
If we truly scrutinise the state of the world today, would it be wrong to feel futile?
I couldn’t label the entire nation racist, but heck, no one can deny that the West has been built upon imperialism, colonisation and slavery.
Tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower, the enslavement of Black Africans in places like Libya, the bombings in Ghouta – Syria, the mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims, my home country Somalia and many more.”
On racism in Britain …
“I couldn’t label the entire nation racist, but heck, no one can deny that the West has been built upon imperialism, colonisation and slavery.
I feel it’s important to use social media to raise awareness of social issues such as racism. It exists, and I could never turn a blind eye to something I feel so strongly against.“
On whether models should be role models …
“My personal stance on this is, models don’t choose to be ‘role models’. Neither does anyone really. It’s kind of inevitable, especially in creative fields.
As for young children looking up to people as role models, I believe the parents should perhaps have that conversation with their child.
No one’s perfect. When it comes to labelling people good and bad role models -it’s just important children understand that ‘role models’ are human, and are able to distinguish morally good actions from bad.”
On the future …
“I genuinely just want to continue to find my feet in this big, opportunistic world. I, of course, am excited to see my modelling career further, perhaps land myself some covers in the future, and simply continue to build myself as a model. I also look forward to doing some more travelling, and definitely see myself further immersing myself in charity or organisational work.”
This interview was edited for clarity and length.