A voice of rea­son


Emirates Woman - - #buvlgari -

“We shouldn’t be grouped to­gether just be­cause we share a religion”

On a scale of one to 10 on how tired Shahira Yusuf is of the now ha­bit­ual ‘Mus­lim model’ story go­ing around the me­dia carousel, she’s “a strong seven”. She would have given it a slam dunk 10, but she doesn’t want the idea of be­ing Mus­lim to be a com­plete af­ter-thought. “It’s still im­por­tant to know about a Mus­lim girl’s story, be­sides her be­ing a model,” she says.

In­deed, ‘Mus­lim model’ pre­cedes Shahira’s iden­tity in a way that mod­els who aren’t, don’t ex­pe­ri­ence. And as lofty a pre­am­ble it may seem, it’s de­val­ued in mean­ing due to throw­away use: “It’s be­come a buzz term, which is clearly boring ev­ery­one now,” she flut­ters, with the mildest hint of east Lon­don in her ac­cent. “Let’s get over it and make it nor­mal al­ready and talk about some­thing new.”

So, I did what most jour­nal­ists are in­doc­tri­nated to never do. I put the ball in Shahira’s court and gave the 21-year-old So­mali-Bri­tish model the free­dom to pur­sue her own agenda in our in­ter­view, rather than be­ing steered by my usual an­gle­seek­ing route. I tell her to say it how it is.

“Be­ing a Mus­lim model is not some kind of break­through trend any­more, there are a fair few of us now,” she says. “But my is­sue is, why are we seen as a col­lec­tive? We shouldn’t be grouped to­gether just be­cause we share a religion. I want to be seen as an in­di­vid­ual, out­side of the ‘Mus­lim model’ nar­ra­tive – we don’t need to con­stantly ac­knowl­edge that I am a Mus­lim model, we know that al­ready, it’s es­tab­lished. It’s im­per­a­tive to hear peo­ple’s per­sonal sto­ries, be­cause they’re all go­ing to be dif­fer­ent and in­ter­est­ing in their own ways.”

Mod­el­ling was some­thing that just hap­pened to Shahira, af­ter be­ing scouted at the age of 17. Her 5’11 stature cer­tainly helped – along with sev­eral times af­ter she was spot­ted. “This was long be­fore hi­jab mod­els were a thing. I didn’t take it se­ri­ously and I didn’t un­der­stand it all that much. But it kept hap­pen­ing. I was be­ing scouted all the time and that made me re­alise I should do some­thing about it.”

Shahira signed with Storm Man­age­ment, a mod­el­ling agency that rep­re­sents an il­lus­tri­ous can­non of greats in­clud­ing Bri­tish It-girl Alexa Chung and Emma Wat­son of Har­ryPot­ter fame. It’s also where vet­eran model Kate Moss be­gan at the age of 14. But now, the mod­el­ling in­dus­try’s white-washed sta­tus quo is be­ing dis­rupted – and not just as a one-off move for click bait. Shahira is at the cen­tre of a per­ma­nent reshuf­fle and she’s “re­ally en­joy­ing be­ing a part of that story”, even if she’s still in the mi­nor­ity by way of num­bers.

Shahira has a voice worth pay­ing at­ten­tion to. A bold tweet, which­has­s­ince­been­pinned­to­thetopofherTwit­ter­page,made back in Novem­ber 2017 de­clared: “I ain’t no Ken­dall Jen­ner, but I’m a black Mus­lim girl from east Lon­don that’s about to fi­nesse the mod­el­ling in­dus­try.” It was retweeted 57,000 times, with a raft of roar­ing com­ments sup­port­ing and pin­ing for her suc­cess. Her In­sta­gram and Twit­ter fol­low­ing, which have a hum­ble 7,000 be­tween them, proves that true in­flu­ence isn’t a num­bers game. If she lifts the lid with a just few char­ac­ters of ar­tic­u­lated fu­ries, it’s still an au­then­tic sell.

With power, of course, comes pol­i­tics. The jug­ger­naut of pub­lic­ity can tram­ple the tough­est acts into a heap of hurt feel­ings, let alone a fresh-faced girl still in her com­ing-of-age

“I deal with crit­i­cism well be­cause I’ve put my­self on this plat­form. I wanted to be here so now I have to ac­cept it”

years. Shahira chooses not to de­flect that crit­i­cal gaze, but ac­knowl­edge it and move for­ward. “I can’t con­trol the out­side world and the opin­ions of other peo­ple. I just want to be able to be my­self and peo­ple can take that how­ever they want. I would love to be per­ceived in a pos­i­tive way all the time, but I know that’s not re­al­is­tic and I make peace with that. I deal with crit­i­cism well be­cause I’ve put my­self on this plat­form. I wanted to be here so now I have to ac­cept it.”

With a ma­ture head on very young shoul­ders, Shahira pos­sesses the same wis­dom in her per­sonal life as in her pro­fes­sional life. “You know that friend we all go to for ad­vice? I am that friend,” she says with­out puffy pom­pos­ity. Be­cause she al­ways has some­thing sage to im­part, a voice of rea­son, as it were, her dis­po­si­tion has awarded her ac­co­lades of “kind, sweet, con­sid­er­ate and funny,” by her friends. But where she is an open heart to oth­ers, she is a pedan­tic quib­bler to her­self. “I am very re­flec­tive of my ac­tions – if I did some­thing that I knew was wrong or I didn’t like, I’d pick up on it very quickly.” A be­havioural trait that’s sel­dom learnt, but an in­nate qual­ity driven her own self-aware­ness.

Her great­est life les­son so far? That she is self-taught. “Al­though it’s im­por­tant to value logic, in some cir­cum­stances emo­tional in­tel­li­gence is more im­por­tant – be­ing aware of your sur­round­ings and how and who you’re talk­ing to can be more af­fect­ing than you think. I come from a big fam­ily so I have had many op­por­tu­ni­ties to grow from my mis­takes.”

She’s trou­bled by so­ci­ety's use of par­tic­u­lar lan­guage (none men­tioned specif­i­cally, but I’d haz­ard a guess they’re racial­ly­in­clined) es­pe­cially with se­man­tics con­stantly shift­ing as we move through new cul­tural cli­mates. “We need to be more aware of our lan­guage,” she says. “We need to call it out and not be afraid to make things right.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, Shahira is gripped by so­cio-po­lit­i­cal is­sues, which at the mo­ment in­cludes any­thing and every­thing. “It’s hard to know where to even be­gin with it,” she points out. “I can’t pick one thing be­cause every­thing in­ter­ests me at the mo­ment. Lo­cal or in­ter­na­tional is­sues, I want to tackle every­thing and ven­ture out­side of mod­el­ling. I see my­self get­ting more po­lit­i­cally en­gaged.” This Septem­ber she will be­gin a de­gree in pol­i­tics at a univer­sity in Lon­don, in which her first port of call is to sign up to as many so­ci­eties (“the Labour So­ci­ety!” men­tioned with un­equiv­o­cal em­pha­sis) as she can. “It’s im­por­tant for me to be in­volved, I can’t wait.”

It doesn’t mean mod­el­ling will be put on the back­burner though.Withthekind­oftem­per­a­mentafford­ed­tothey­oun­gand rest­less, Shahira wants to leave no stone un­turned. Po­lit­i­cally, she’s hanker­ing for change and to be a key com­po­nent in what­ever she takes on; for fash­ion, she wants to walk for a spate of big-named shows (she has yet to make her run­way de­but). “YSL and Prada – I mean, how could you not as­pire to them? And Chanel and Ver­sace,” she says. And af­ter giv­ing her free rein, I don’t doubt that she will be a house­hold name very soon.

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