Hijab-wearing model who won Somalia's maiden African title

Hijab-wearing model who won Somalia's maiden African title

That Adar Yusuf Ibrahim made it to the Miss University Africa finals to represent Somalia was considered a pioneering achievement. And even though she was considered a strong contender, winning the title to be declared the 2021 Miss University Africa was a dream come true.

The 23-year-old made history by being the first contestant from Somalia to try out for the pageant and also the first contestant wearing a hijab to win a global title in Africa.

Adar was studying project management at Atlas College in Nairobi’s Eastleigh, but had been a commercial and runway modesty (clothing that is concealing) model. She had taken part in the Modest Fashion Week organised by comedian Nasra.

The term modest fashion or modest dressing refers to a fashion trend in women of wearing less skin-revealing clothes, especially in a way that satisfies their spiritual and stylistic requirements for reasons of faith, religion or personal preference.

Adar was raised to dress modestly and stay covered. In this way, she developed her sense of style around it.

“It was a personal choice and even though I don’t think that all Muslim women have to dress the same, I love it,” says Adar.

Adar Yusuf Ibrahim

Miss University Africa Adar Yussuf Ibrahim at Nation Center, Nairobi on December 31, 2021.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

The thing that caught her eye about the Miss University Africa pageant was the fact that it also encourages modesty — including not having the swim-suit category, but rather an evening gown and cultural attire segments.

“I wanted to do something that was outside of my comfort zone. In Somalia we don’t usually do beauty pageants, so I had to apply directly to the organisers to express my interest. They then asked me questions and when I met their perspectives, they chose me,” she says.

Leakey Odera, the national director for Miss University Africa Kenya, said the event is the only pageant which has contestants from all the 55 countries, but some African countries still don’t believe in pageantry.

“The committee in Nigeria looks at their photos and interviews them on phone to see if they make the criteria for the competition; 80 per cent of it is based on a person’s personality – etiquette and how you carry yourself in social activities,” he says.

That’s not where her determination stopped. She had to get a personal pageant coach for just a week before leaving for the continental competition. At the competition, she also had extra coaching and a choreographer who taught her how to manage the stage and walking, and how to hold the microphone when answering questions.

“I have been in the modelling industry for four years but this was the first time I was trying out pageant. They are two totally different aspects. In pageantry the walks are slower and you have to smile more; it was a new environment for me,” says Adar.

Adar Yusuf Ibrahim

Adar Yusuf Ibrahim after she was crowned Miss University Africa 2021.

Photo credit: Pool

The contestants spend three weeks together at the competition, the only one where every contestant’s travel expenses are catered for by the organising committee. Being young women from different parts of the continent, bonding becomes inevitable as they trade stories from their various home countries, cultures and backgrounds.

When the top 10 final girls were chosen by the judges, Adar’s name wasn’t called out. She wasn’t at that point in their sights. But there was a slot for an 11th contestant chosen by viewers through social media voting. Adar was their choice.

“Then they asked us questions and I ended up in the top five. That would have been enough for me; it was a big thing for me; being the first Somali girl in this competition and making it to the final five. If any other girl had won, I would have been happy for them but I still had hopes I was going to win despite being with other beautiful girls from different cultures. If you ask me, I would say I did everything to my best even though I can’t really say why the judges picked me over the rest,” says Adar, adding that all contestants supported each other.

Her win was so emotional for her family and country due to her representation of the culture and Somalia. She got a lot of positive messages and support from even some people in their government. None more so than when she was received at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on December 30. There were traditional dancers and various delegations to welcome her.

“Seeing the joy in the people I met was really nice. It was a big thing because the pageant promotes decent dressing, which is something I’ve always been doing. So, my reign after winning wouldn’t be challenging,” adds Adar.

Adar was born in Somalia but her family left the country while she was only 11.

Adar Yusuf Ibrahim

Adar Yusuf Ibrahim arrives at JKIA in Nairobi after she was crowned Miss University Africa 2021 in Nigeria.

Photo credit: Pool

“We left there when the wars became a bit too much; for a better life. I do remember a lot about the war… a lot. And no, I don’t want to talk about it (what she saw of the war). We were supposed to be processed and then flown elsewhere but it didn’t work out. So, we stayed here and became residents, getting our education and all,” says Adar, who is in an upbeat mood throughout the interview. Her family was supposed to be processed in Kenya as they waited to be flown elsewhere, but it didn’t come to pass and she thus grew up in Nairobi’s Eastleigh.

The forex trader had quit her previous project management job at an NGO for personal reasons. She says with her win she will get more girls to try out for Miss University Africa Somalia.

“My title stands for empowering and uplifting others. I really believe there are people in my community who want to do beauty pageants and modelling but they are scared of people’s judgement. Every community has people with different beliefs. Some people in my community don’t see me as being covered enough and will have something to say about it. Just be you and have fun, and believe in God,” says Adar.

Leakey believes that corporate and government participation in terms of sponsorship and support is key for the growth of the pageant, mainly since it brings out the spirit of Pan-Africanism; how Africans can unite to take on leadership roles in their communities. Other countries globally use the platform to also prepare their future contestants for bigger pageants like Miss World and Miss Universe.

These are interesting times for the nation of Somalia in pageantry. Khadija Omar, a 20-year-old professional makeup artist and psychology major at York Univeristy in Canada, was set to debut the country’s entry at Miss World at the postponed event that was to be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She was going to also be Somalia’s first hijabi contestant at the global pageant.