When Mariah Idrissi got a call from a model scout earlier this year asking her to feature in a new ad campaign for H&M, the 23-year-old was skeptical. “Are you sure they know I wear a hijab?" she asked.
Now Idrissi, whose parents are Pakistani and Moroccan, is surprising the fashion world as a new model for H&M, the second largest global retailer after Zara. This month she appeared in the brand’s denim collection launch video while wearing a headscarf. A handful of brands, including DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and Mango, have launched special "Ramadan" collections in recent years, in time for the holiest month of the Islamic lunar calendar, or designed clothes with the world's 1.6 billion Muslim consumers in mind. Most of the outfits feature long, flowing dresses in jeweled colors, skirts, long-sleeved shirts and coats.
But Idrissi appears to be setting a precedent for diversity in fashion as one of several characters in H&M’s short film, Close the Loop, which also includes an amputee model, plus-sized models, a Gulf Sheikh and a group of Sikh men. Idrissi has been particularly singled out in the U.K. media for her role in the ad. “I honestly have no idea why,” she says in a phone interview, giggling and speaking in a thick London accent common to her hometown. “It might be because hijab fashion has boomed in the last few years and to finally see a hijabi [a woman who wears a hijab] in mainstream fashion is a big achievement,” she says, somewhat modestly.
In reality, Idrissi is anything but shy and conservative, and flaunts her faith, face and talent for henna painting, nail art and flawless beauty application on Instagram, one of the ways she was discovered by H&M. Her confidence is apparent on H&M’s video, where she’s seen standing defiantly in a doorway, wearing round sunglasses, wide-legged trousers, and a checked hijab, while the voiceover describes her as “chic.” Her makeup is flawless (“I prefer to do my own, but they insisted,” she says), and she is completely at ease.
Speaking in succinct bursts, Idrissi’s self-assured tone comes from years of practice on stage doing Islamic poetry, or Nasheed, which is a type of spoken word, and her work with British Muslim television channels. At the age of 14, she performed her first poem in front of 200 people, reading about the Prophet Mohammed at a Malcolm X event in London. Years later, in October 2014, she exposed a different side of herself, in a poetic tribute to Palestinian refugees in which she sounds more like a rap or hip hop artist than your average conservative Muslim woman.
Idrissi decided to wear a hijab when she was 17, a late age compared to most young girls in conservative Islamic families who begin wearing it at puberty. Yet her devotion to Islam is evident through her philosophical understanding of the religion. “Being a Muslim or not, I’ve always had interests naturally in history or religious studies,” she says. “I spent 10 years in Islamic school, that is a big factor, plus doing the Nasheeds as a teenager made me closer to my faith. I’ve always had elements of Islam in my life.”
Thanks to her stage exposure earlier in life, Idrissi says she went to the H&M shoot excited and with the consent of her mother, an accountant, and her father, who manages a U.K. military veterans’ private members club in London. “I thought it’s for a good cause,” she says, referring to the ad campaign’s focus on recycling clothes. “[H&M] asked how much in terms of neck I could show, but to be honest they were very respectful.” The camera team made accommodations for her, providing a private dressing area and limiting male interaction. “If the cameramen noticed something not quite right, they would call a woman over to fix me, it was sweet,” Idrissi says. “One of the watches was dangling in the wrong way, and rather than just twisting it on my wrist, the cameraman asked a woman to come over. It just showed that little bit of respect.”
Idrissi’s involvement in the campaign introduced H&M into a massive new market that the retailer has rarely entered in its 60 years of advertising history. Muslims, the second largest religion in the world after Christianity, are projected to spend a massive $484 billion on clothing and footwear by 2019, up from $266 billion in 2013, according to Thomson Reuters, yet the number of Islamic models, particularly women wearing head coverings, featured in international marketing campaigns is limited.
Muslim women have bombarded Idrissi with requests for tutorials on how she wraps her turban hijab, a modern style that combines the desire to look Muslim and appear more fashionable. They have also been vocal about the importance of including Idrissi in a global ad campaign. Blogger MuslimGirl wrote: "She awakened the people. In a simple and quiet way she made others look at a Muslim woman without fear or contempt but with a healthy curiosity. Maria [sic] opened a conversation that has always been strained."
Idrissi seems to understand the value of what she’s done. “It always feels like women who wear hijab are ignored when it comes to fashion,” she said. “Our style, in a way, hasn’t really mattered, so it’s amazing that a brand that is big has recognized the way we wear hijab.”
Idrissi’s fresh-faced interpretation of Islam does not stop at H&M. In July, she launched a Moroccan-inspired beauty salon in London, Salon Marrakesh, which specializes in henna application, Moroccan massages and even a type of Halal nail polish, created by Inglot, for Muslim women who are traditionally prohibited from wearing polish when they pray. The breathable polish allows water vapors to pass through to the nail, an important factor for the water ablutions performed before prayer, because Islamic rituals require water to touch every surface of the skin.
Reimagining Islam, Idrissi has no qualms about how she is seen to others. There will always be mixed opinions, she says, about religion and Islam. "Some people think it’s great that women can be beautiful and wear a hijab, and others think they’re forced to wear it. I’m quite thick-skinned though, so if people did say anything to me, I wouldn’t notice it anyway.”
We clarified this story's headline to reflect the specific head covering the model wears.
Farah Halime is a British-Palestinian journalist based in Brooklyn. She was previously in Cairo and Beirut covering the financial and economic aftermath of the Arab Spring, where she founded the blog Rebel Economy.