Conversations with friends - Chapter 3. Milan Pyramid
Another chapter of “Conversations with friends” is here, today with a very special guest: Aya
Mohamed, better known on social media as Milan Pyramid.
Landed from a few days in London, for a Prada project, between a work lunch and shootings, Aya found time to dedicate to me and a few questions about her job, modest fashion and being an hijabi girl in this field, so on a Wednesday morning we tuned in for a call. It was the biggest pleasure for me to talk with sweet Aya about such delicate and important themes, learning new things from her perspective and experience.
I hope you will like her enlightening answers too!
- Let’s start from the basics, for those who don’t know you: who is Aya and what is Milan Pyramid?
If I had to describe my two worlds in short, easy words, I would say that I am an activist and content creator.
It all started in 2017, when I opened my blog: my aim was to talk about women that wear the hijab, and in general the Muslim religion, to break down stereotypes and prejudices about them. I also chose to study political sciences and am currently getting my degree. I say that I am an activist because is an easy word for people to understand what I do, but you got to be careful, because it carries a deep meaning and engagement.
The other part of my job is connected to fashion: since I was a child, little Aya knew that she would end up working in the fashion field in some way. I have always had this challenge with myself: I wanted to prove people that you can be a Muslim girl, wearing the hijab and following a modest fashion style, and still be a model or ambassador for high fashion maisons.
- How did you get to work in fashion? Was it easy for you, as a Muslim girl that wears the hijab?
When I started my job five years ago, it was difficult to find in the fashion field models of my kind, so maybe I was lucky because I was a new face, different form the usual ones and might be able to make a change.
Through the years, fashion maisons have opened more and more their doors and runaways to modest fashion and hijabi models: for the statement ones, like Prada or Gucci for example, with whom I’m still collaborating, the aim is not to find famous ambassador so that the brand can raise their followers, what they care about is finding people who share, incarnate their values, ethics and can represent the face of the brand in a new, fresh way, both in the campaigns and on a daily basis. The collections of the last few years, especially during and post-covid, really show this change: we see a lot of modest outfits along with the non-modest ones.
I’m not saying this to brag, which is something I don’t like, but think about my red carpet with Valentino. During the latest Venice Film Festival in September, I was invited to walk on the red carpet wearing an all-Valentino outfit: I was wearing matching bright pink gown and hijab. It was the first time, for a Muslim hijabi girl from Italy to do such a thing: it was a magical night for me, I was honored to be there as Aya but also as a girl that brought a new image in such a high, popular place, sending a positive message.
Inclusivity is a much-said word these days, so you have to be careful and recognize which brands do it because they truly believe in it and the ones that use the word for the sake of selling more.
I have rarely found huge problems in my job, but what I sometimes have found is ignorance, people who did not make research ahead to build a good environment for me, as a hijabi model: I was asked to wear sheer, revealing clothes, or maybe if I could remove my hijab.
Still, I also see a lot of people who are really trying to understand my way of dressing and opening up to this different world: even if they still don’t know much about it, they are willing to make research and talking with people in order to create modest outfits.
- You often stated that “Fashion is political”: what do you means with that?
Fashion is a form of art, it is a way of expressing who we are and the society who live in, and I think there’s nothing more political than that. You can be an activist with fashion, which is what I try to do every day, you can change perspectives and also tell stories.
A few days ago, I saw a post on Instagram about Elsa Schiaparelli: it said that when she was young she took a trip with her father and went to Tunisia, a place that amazed her so much that in 1935 she designed an head scarf inspired by the ones she saw Berber women wear back then. This is a perfect example of how travelling and getting to know new cultures can merge with fashion into creating amazing pieces that “build bridges between cultures with fabrics”.
Valentino, with the Pink-wave bringing hope and positivity and desire to fight for a better future, as well as Gucci, with the last show in Milan FW, bringing up a message for humanity in times where we seem to have lost the meaning of its values: they are example of how today big maisons are trying to share political messages trough clothes. Take Vivienne Westwood: she’s the pioneer of political fashion!
All this is not only about brands at all: when we get up in the morning and pick what to wear, we too are making a political choice, in the style we adopt – think about the famous subcultures of punks, hippies, 90s skater kids that today we still see in high schoolers, dressing up to try and find their identity – in the brand we buy based on their ethics. We should stop thinking that clothes are just clothes, ‘cause we might find out that they sometimes can be as important as the paintings we hang in museums, and streets can be museums too!
- Let’s make a practical, daily example: last year French fashion was in the eye of the Balaclava scandal. Balaclavas are winter, wool head scarfs that leave only eyes and mouth on display, so they were the object of polemic discussions, as they are similar to the hijab, which, on the other hand, is a cause of social discrimination for the women who wear it. What do you think about it?
I had felt the urgency of the problem last year, so I made a post on Instagram too. I don’t think that it is a problem of cultural appropriation; the seriousness of the problem lays in this being another example of how much France, and Vogue France, proved to be Islamophobic with this case, normalizing so easily something like Balaclavas when it comes to western women while never having tried to create a safe place for hijabi women who, for a free personal choice, cover their heads every day.
Let’s make things clear: head scarfs are not just for hijabi girls, as modest fashion is not just a Muslim thing. In fact, modest fashion was born in the 80s-90s thanks Christian and Jewish women who tried to build a new fashion that was more in line with their religious believes; it is now more popular than it was at the times thanks to a new generation of daughters of immigrant parents from the middle-east who wanted to make this kind of fashion stand out, instead of keeping it a thing circumscribed to their communities (Aya too is one of these girls: born in Egypt, she’s the daughter of immigrant parents who came to Italy a few years later).
What I am saying here is not that we should discriminate the people I just talked about: indeed, it is because they are out there too, showing that it is possible to dress in a certain way, because of religious or cultural believes, without being discriminated, victims of prejudices and verbal and physical violence, that there is then no reason why this should happen to Muslim and hijabi women. If you accept something for a group of people, Parisienne fashionistas wearing balaclavas, for example, then you have to allow the same thing for Muslim women who wear hijab, as well, for example, as people from the Sikh community wearing turbans.
Not wanting to accept the fashion of Muslim women is a way, if I may add, to control the bodies of Muslim women: we cover up and this is dangerous for a society that likes to treat women’s bodies as objects upon which they can make rules. What people should do is try to understand why we do so, what we believe in and deal with the fact that it is a free, personal decision!
- France and Italy, being them two countries that you know well, thanks to your job too: what are the pros and cons for muslim, hijabi women who live there?
These two countries are very different, for culture and for history: since the French Revolution, France has had assimilation between its values, as well as a history of heavy and destructive colonialism, which today are well seen in the idea that people, in public, should show no sign of their religious, personal believes. Italy, luckily, does not have such a xenophobic history, as well as a less Islamophobic tendency: people most of the time make rude comments of have misconceptions ‘cause they don’t really know what Islam is about, so education here is the key.
Still, it is not easy to say who’s better and who’s worse: France, for example, has a lot of mosques, recognized by the state as such, and the Muslim community has got more spaces that they can call their own; in Italy, on the other hand, despite being there a community of two million Muslim people, there are only five mosques registered as official. Milan does not have a mosque, there you can only find “Muslim cultural centesr”, which, only by them name, you can tell are not like real mosques. It is not easy, in both countries, to live as an Arabian, or Muslim, person: they are not the same thing, and we should try to build safe places for both.
What I think we need is “intercultural interactions”: integration is a widely spread word but I think the meaning behind it is not what we should mean, as it takes up the idea that we should get rid of the cultural parts that collide with others in order to make people live together; what we need is to make people meet, talk, live together and build safe spaces where they can all express themselves, keeping their personal culture without having to give up their habits and believes, creating a peaceful large community where people enrich one another thanks to differences.
I was recently in France and have realized that I have felt more Muslim there then I have ever felt here in Italy: I wanted to put into words my experience, and still am working about it, so I will definitely share on my profile my thoughts very soon!
- Okay, before we end our chat, could you suggest us accounts of fashion creators or models that are hijabi women, or just follow modest fashion? It would be helpful to follow more of these women for all people who want to know about this part of fashion, but especially for Muslim hijabi girls who need representation!
Sure! I started wearing the hijab when I was eighteen years old, and it was not easy: in my school there were no girls like me, nor there where many Muslim and Arab families in my neighborhood. I felt lost, alone, as I had no local, Italian, role models I could identify with. Now that I grew up a community on my social profiles, as well as having been invited to schools and universities to talk about Islam and islamophobia, I have received many messages from girls who would like to start wearing the hijab, who are getting closer to its world and meaning, but feel scared to do so. I am honored to be for them a role model, someone that with her daily life can show them that it is possible to wear the hijab, dress in a modest way and have no regrets, ‘cause it is my, our, identity, and we should not be ashamed about it. Representation can help them become more confident, as well as helping the people around them breaking internalized, irrational stereotypes about Muslim, hijabi women.
On a national level, I would really recommend starting to follow Sumaya Abdel Qader (@sumaya.abdel.qader): she’s a writer, sociology student and some might already know her as she collaborated with the director of Skam Italia, Ludovico Bessegato, to shape the character of Sana, the protagonist of the fifth season, an hijabi muslim girl that is trying to find herself during her teenage, talking about future choices, love and most of all the freedom to be Muslim. On the international scene I really suggest following Rawda Mohamed (@rawdis), a Norvegian-somali model and activist for women’s right, Muslim ones in particular.
I think we need more people like Aya, babes, brave women who stand out for their rights and treat fashion as a serious matter. Go and follow her on Instagram to get more and more inspiration and knowledge!