Hijabi trailblazers who are smashing stereotypes and paving the way for inclusivity
Strength in faith
France has done it again. The country’s Senate has voted in favour of a law that will ban women under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public spaces. It’s also seeking to prevent mothers from wearing the hijab at school and on field trips, besides prohibiting the burkini in public pools.
Ironically, the reasoning behind this restriction is to uphold women’s rights—the hijab is seen by some quarters as a form of oppression. However, stripping girls and women of the right to choose to wear the hijab is not an act of liberation.
As BURO’s Redzhanna Jazmin wrote: “At its core, the hijab is used purely to preserve modesty; to cover the hair and aurat of Muslim women.” Choosing to wear it—or not—should be a personal choice.
So, in support of hijab-wearing women around the world, we’re shining a light on inspiring hijabi trailblazers who are on the rise. These are empowered women pursuing their dreams, in fields where they stand out for being “different”. Yet, they persevere. Brave and steadfast in balancing ambition and religion.
Nor ‘Phoenix’ Diana
Do not judge a woman by her looks—or her hijab. Nor ‘Phoenix’ Diana describes herself as a “small Malaysian girl from Keramat” but the sum of her achievements thus far is no small feat. Standing at a diminutive 155cm, the world’s first hijab-wearing female pro wrestler is also the Malaysia Pro Wrestling (MyPW) Wrestlecon championship’s first female winner.
Just as dramatic as Phoenix’s fights in the ring is the ongoing saga of Diana’s rise to worldwide fame. Notable milestones include playing wrestling games on her brother’s PlayStation Portable to training with MyPW in 2015 to beating four men to win Malaysian wrestling’s top championship. At the end of 2019, Diana quit her job at a private hospital to join Eve, a women's pro wrestling tournament in London.
Just a few weeks before global lockdowns began, Diana’s mother passed away and she flew back to Malaysia. With a ban on contact sports in place for most of the year, Diana made ends meet by becoming a stuntwoman. In the same year, she was named to Forbes’s 30 under 30 Asia list. She’s now taken another jab at pro wrestling again as APAC Wrestling’s first signee.
At two years old, Stephanie Kurlow dipped her toes in dance. At nine, she converted to Islam with her Australian father and Russian mother. And at 11, she donned the hijab. Throughout the changes to her childhood in Sydney’s suburbs, Kurlow’s passion for ballet would only grow stronger.
Of course, behind every successful and well-adjusted child is a supportive family. When Kurlow couldn’t find a dance school that would accommodate her religious beliefs, her mother opened a performing arts school where girls like her would feel safe and welcomed.
When they hit another obstacle, 14-year-old Kurlow took to the internet to crowdfund her dream of training in ballet full-time. The young girl’s passion moved hearts all over the world, making her the world’s most high-profile “hijabi ballerina”. Now 19, she trains hard to fulfil her dream of joining a professional ballet company and touring the world. After which, she wishes to follow in her mum’s footsteps and start a ballet company and performing arts school for people of different religions, races or backgrounds.
Yuna’s an obvious choice for this list, yes. But we can’t possibly fathom not including her. Born Yunalis Zarai, the Subang girl has gone from uploading songs on MySpace to creating a space for herself within the international music industry; one where she’s able to thrive as herself.
Together with her manager, Yuna started her own record label after being told she had to change her image—take off her head scarf and sing only Malay songs—to fit in and find success as a recording artist.
Since then, she’s become the Most Successful Malaysian Singer (a recognition conferred by the Malaysian Book of Records), topped the US Billboard charts, produced an album with Pharrell Williams, collaborate with award-winning artists such as Usher, and joined their ranks as a celebrated award-winner in her own right.
She's also constantly raising the profile of hijab-wearing women, appearing on prominent billboards in prime New York locations not once, but three times (and counting). All while staying true to her roots as a Malaysian.
There is still some way to go before hijab-wearing women are welcomed in all sports, in competitions all over the world. However, change has to start somewhere. Besides our Malaysian athletes, there’s Emrati figure skater Zahra Lari and weightlifter Amna Al Haddad, German boxer Zeina Nassar, as well as American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad—just to name a few.
In 2016, Ibtihaj became the first member of the US Olympic team to compete in a hijab at Rio, and the first female Muslim-American athlete to earn a medal at the Olympics when she took home the bronze. Ibtihaj is also the inspiration for the first hijab-wearing Barbie doll, which bears her likeness and wears full fencing gear.
Her parents are Muslim converts and introduced fencing to their daughter, as the sport allows her to wear a head scarf while practising and competing. When she's not fencing, Ibtihaj turns her focus to Louella, the modest fashion brand she founded.
In an illustrious beauty and fashion modelling career spanning just over three years, Halima Aden has achieved many firsts. Raised in a Somalia refugee camp in Kenya, before moving to Minnesota at the age of seven, Aden became her high school's first hijab-wearing homecoming queen. As a 19-year-old student, she made waves for wearing a hijab throughout the Miss Minnesota USA pageant.
The reason she joined, she says, was to put forth a more positive representation of Islam and hijab-wearing women, in a time of fear and misunderstanding. Aden went on to become IMG’s first hijab-wearing model—walking for high-profile brands at fashion weeks and landing on the covers of well-known fashion magazines not normally known for diversity and representation.
But while Aden broke barriers as a fashion icon, she’s also on this list for her courage in exercising the freedom to choose her own path. In November 2020, at the peak of her career, the 23-year-old announced she’d be stepping back from the industry—citing a loss of her identity as she became more successful, leading to a growing disconnect with both her faith and family. Although Aden’s departure leaves a gap in fashion, it’s sparked important conversations about far-reaching inclusivity and representation issues.
Music is one of the languages of diplomacy, and it helps if you sing in the local language. Besides having talent (lots of it), Shila Amzah is also able to sing in English, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Tamil, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Italian.
This, combined with her innate charm and experience in the music industry (she followed her father to recording studios from the age of four, and won a talent competition when she 10), has been attributed to Shila's success in China. The country's music industry is notoriously difficult to crack for local talents, let alone foreign ones, especially those who look very different from everyone else.
But Shila’s done just that, beginning from passing the auditions for Asian Wave, a Chinese reality singing talent show held in Shanghai, to winning it. She now has over 2.4 million followers on her Weibo account, China’s version of Facebook, where she regularly greets fans in fluent Mandarin.
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