Meet Somali-American Muslim Model Ridwan Ibrahim

Beauty in Identity

Styling and story: Dianne Pineda-Kim, assisted by Ashley Robbins

Photos: Daniel Kim

Clothing: Tibaeg

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A Groove co-editor and I first spotted Ridwan Ibrahim walking nonchalantly along the infamous walkway outside DDP, where last season’s F/W Seoul Fashion Week was held. We were on the hunt for the best-dressed fashion showgoers and spectators to include in our street-style feature. Tall, slender, and with beautiful striking features, she was easily a standout among the many other well-dressed members of the crowd looking to attract photographers with their fresh sartorial wares. With her effortless off-duty look that seemed like she threw on the first thing that came to mind⁠—a casual shirt, jeans, cardigan, beanie, and Converse sneakers⁠—it was obvious that she wasn’t there to impress or be seen; she was there for work. Still, she looked effortlessly chic. We recognized her from having previously seen her on the runways of prominent Korean designer brands Greedilous and Doucan. One thing that is immediately noticeable in her fashion on and off the runway is that she always wears a hat, scarf, or head accessory. “I’m a Muslim,” she told us proudly, “I wore a hat to keep my faith through my fashion.”

I got in touch with Ridwan again several months after that encounter for a full feature for this issue, and I wanted to make sure that she was involved in the styling process because I knew I wanted to express not only the latest trends but also a significant part of what she believes in. Fashion is, ultimately, all about collaboration and the exchange of ideas. To bring out the personality of a subject, fashion must seek to complement and enhance what’s already there rather than impose itself on others. To quote the words of fashion writer Bethan Holt: fashion is not “about trends exactly, but how we express ourselves through clothes and the way they work for us.”

 With this in mind, Ridwan and I chatted back and forth about some customs she must adhere to when it comes to clothing. Here, she tells her narrative not only of her life as an international model living in Seoul but also as a woman of faith.

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Muslim model in South Korea

Korean fashion is undoubtedly one of the fastest-growing and most trendsetting industries in the world. With its young, modern, and global appeal, it has secured a place in the mainstream consciousness of the generally exclusive fashion world. But despite this development over the years, it has been quite slow to adapt to inclusivity and representation when it comes to standards of beauty. “It was a bit hard and is still difficult to model in Korea because I am a Muslim and so I have to wear a scarf to cover my hair, always. I cannot wear certain types of clothes such as shorts, bikinis, and tank tops, among others,” the 22-year-old model shares. “So when I get a gig, I have to know about the concept and talk to them about my restrictions, and I let them decide whether to work with me or not.”

Born from a Somalian-American family, growing up and graduating from a university in the US, Ridwan didn’t always dream about modeling. She was always told by friends and acquaintances to give it a shot because she had the height, good looks, and figure for it. But it was when she went to Seoul to do an internship that she considered modeling seriously. “I know the market in Korea is different because they want a certain look and they are still learning to become open-minded to different cultures,” she says. “But being Muslim and covering your hair is a first for Korea. I know I am worthy of being a model here but because of certain limitations, I am always challenged to prove myself.”

Although she has not experienced any discrimination in Korea when it comes to her religion, she says that the industry still has a lot of things to learn. “Most of the time they would ask me, ‘Oh you can’t even take off your scarf for a photoshoot?’ Or when I tell them I am Muslim and I have to cover my hair but they don’t always consider the fact that I have to cover my body as well and book me for a bikini casting call. So sometimes they try and pressure me to see if I will compromise my faith and what I believe.”

It is a common mistake in fashion when people, especially those in positions of authority, think that it’s a one-way street. Designers, heads of brands, and production teams often assume that to work in fashion means to set an agenda for the general public to follow. That’s how the direction of a typical trend usually works.  But, according to the editor of the magazine Kinfolk, a good design, or good fashion in this case, “not only gets its message across—it also engages us in a conversation.”

 Ridwan is perhaps one of the first Muslim models to open an important discussion in Korean fashion, sharing a lesson that’s completely basic but oftentimes disregarded: respect is always key. “I won't ever compromise my faith. I have been covering my hair in public since I was in kindergarten, so why would I stop now? It’s what I believe in.”

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Breaking Stereotypes

Grammy Award-winning R&B soul singer India Arie’s career rose to greater heights when she made a declaration of liberation through her song, “I Am Not My Hair,” with evocative lyrics such as, “I am not my hair, I am not this skin. I am not your expectations. I am a soul that lives within.”  

The song’s lines ring true for so many people regardless of age, race, religion, or background. And just like Arie’s song goes beyond its message, Ridwan’s story is not merely a story about hair: it’s about acceptance, diversity, and change. She says, “I wish everyone would be kinder to each other and not think that, because of the action of one person that everyone in that group is bad. Not every Muslim person is a threat to society, and I wish people would understand that concept.”

With her presence in the Korean fashion scene, it’s apparent that Korea is gradually opening its doors and giving opportunities for models from around the world to show more than their physical beauty. Ridwan ends, “I want to show other Muslim girls like me that they can go and pursue what they want to do in a different country and still be able to practice their faith and not be pressured to take off their headscarves or do something that would be against their religion. Being a Muslim female model in Korea is hard, but it is possible.” 

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HealthSean Choi