Late last year, Senior Designer Nadia Bunyan sat down with Rakia Moctar Karimou via Zoom to discover who she is, her values and her inspirations. You might recognize Rakia as an activist, a globe-trotter, or as a Silk Laundry model; but read on, or listen along, to discover the full identity behind the smile.
WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW
N: Rakia, how about you introduce yourself?
R: My name is Rakia Moctar Karimou. I say it in French because that’s how it’s spelled. I’m 21 years old. I study translation at Université de Montréal and I’m a model.
N: Where did you grow up?
R: That’s a hard question. It's going to be long. I’ll start from the beginning. When I was 5 years old, we moved to New York from Niger where my dad was already working as a veterinary doctor. I was born in Niger, and grew up in Niger until I was 5 years old. And then from New York we moved to Canada. Montreal. When I was in Grade 8, in 2013, we moved back to Niger with my two big sisters. I have two big sisters, one that is 3 years older than me and the other is 6 years older than me. The one that is closer of age to me, my mum and I moved to Niger because my dad found a job there. My dad, he didn’t like Canadian winter. He told me one day that he was moving snow before work and he was questioning his life like: “Ah, I wasn’t made for that”, you know? To live in a cold country. LAUGHS. So he was happy to go back there, I wasn’t really happy to go back.
N: It had been a while since you’d been there? At this point you’d been living in Canada for a number of years?
R: Yeah, that’s all that I had known, so it was very disorientating. It was a life experience to be honest. I was 13 years old. It was a shock. But now that I look back on it I am very grateful because it made me who I am, and it really opened my horizons. I stayed in Niger for 5 years. And it was during this time I started modelling. When I was 15 years old I went to Spain with a friend that I had met in Niger. She kind of had the same story as me, just a Spanish version. She was 16 years old and she didn’t speak French or any language from Niger, so it was even worse for her.
N: So she had moved to Niger, and that’s where you two had met?
R: Yes, we were like: “Oh my god, you is me and me is you!” She was a model too. And we really look alike. People thought that we were twins, or sisters, or something like that. She was speaking to me in Spanish and I was speaking to her in French, so I learned Spanish with her and she learned French with me. And when she would go on holidays in Spain, her mum invited me. So I went to Spain when I was 15. That’s where I first started modelling. I went with her to a photoshoot that she had, and the photographer wanted to shoot me. So I did my first photoshoot.
N: When did you start wearing your hijab? Or when did religion begin to play a bigger part in your life?
R: It was in 2017 during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast. At that time my faith started growing. I started reading the Quran, the Islamic Book, in French because my first language is French, from beginning to end. And then, before the end of Ramadan, I was like: “I want to get closer to God. Maybe it’s time I start wearing the hijab and show Him how much I can sacrifice for Him, and how much I love Him.”
N: Why Ramadan, was it something that happened? Like what made you, at this point in your life, say: “I want to explore this more, I want to get closer”?
R: It was being in depression. I was very, very troubled. And my mum was always like: “You can always come back to Allah. No matter how many sins you’ve committed, no matter how far you went from Him, He’s going to welcome you.” I was like: “Yo. Coming from last Ramadan where I didn’t pray or anything, and now you think, oh because I’m sad I’m going to go back to Him and he’s going to be like Yeah, that’s cool. Like, nah.” But it stayed in my mind. So when mum was at work and I was alone at home, I thought about what she said and I was like: “You know what, you have nothing to lose, so just try it.” And that’s when I started praying slowly, maybe once a week, and started reading a few verses of the Quran. But I still wasn’t practicing or anything. During Ramadan, when I completed the reading, I decided to start wearing the hijab, but literally only for Him. At first when I was wearing the hijab I wasn’t wearing it like I am right now, I was wearing the big stuff, you know. Like the very long hijab. I was just like: “I don’t care about anything, I’m not trying to please society, I’m just here to please God.” I was really peaceful and focused on my goal that was, and still is, going to Paradise. So yeah, I started wearing the hijab in 2017, and I stopped modelling too, because at that time it wasn’t really a thing, being a hijabi model.
N: When you decided to start wearing the hijab, did you try to look for work or did you just decide: “I don’t think there’s really a place for me”?
R: I wasn’t really thinking about modelling that much at that time. I was thinking of going back to Canada. My parents were always telling me: “You’re still a minor and we can’t send you there, as long as you’re a minor you have to stay with us.” I had this thing in my mind that as soon as I turned 18: “I’m going back!” So it happened like that. In 2017 I also decided to go back to school and it was actually quite intense because I did what people were meant to do in years in 4 months.
N: You are at what stage of your schooling when you decided to go back?
R: I was supposed to be in grade ten or eleven. There’s this thing in the French system called A-Levels and you need an A-Level to enter University. There’s a science option, a literature option and the economic option. I chose the literature option because I love philosophy and history and all those things. So my parents got me some teachers for home. My mum applied for me, she put in my name as the candidate for the certificate and I started studying. Literally, I was studying from morning to dawn every day, non-stop. Just drinking coffee, reading, reading. Yeah, but what made me not think that anything was too big wass because in my mind I’m like: “God can give me anything. I’m not gonna restrict my prayers or what I wish for because if He can create the universe He can give me my certificate, He can make me go to Italy, He can give me a private jet”, right? He can give me anything. I really don’t limit my hopes and expectations. So I had the dream, I had the certificate and I went to my parents and I was like: “You know, dad, I have it now. I’m 18, you know what’s left to do, right? LAUGHS. But my dad’s opinion didn’t really change. He said that if I go to Canada I’m probably going to struggle because I’m not gonna be with my parents, I’m going to have to pay for a lot of things. And there was an American university in the city he was in, so he wanted me to go there. But then the more I would think about it and also knowing that studying was really expensive, and that I didn’t want to waste my money if I wasn’t going to study, so I went back to them again and I was like: “I’m not gonna stay here for more years. I don’t want you to waste your money. I’m not going to do it.” I said: “I’m gonna find my way.” LAUGHS. And the worst thing was that my Canadian passport expired. And I didn’t have a job, so I didn’t have money. And also, the Canadian embassy was closed in Niger, so there was no way I could renew it from Niger. I had to go to another country like Sengal, for example. I had a friend in Senegal who said to come to her house and do it from there. But I didn’t have the money for the plane ticket. So, my childhood friend lent me the money for the flight and I stayed at my friend’s house. My dad was like: “If you’re so determined, and you think you can do things by yourself, then go on, I’m gonna go print for you all your documents. If you can do it, go ahead.” So he really gave me that freedom. And that’s what I did. I was supposed to stay there for like 2 weeks, 1 month maximum, but I found a job there as an interpreter. It was for an American company on the phone, so I had to interpret medical scenarios, police scenarios, a lot of things like that. Basically I’d just be like, I’d pick up the phone and be like: “Hello. This is your French interpreter Rakia, nah-nah-nah-nah-nah how may I assist.” And sometimes I’d receive a call like: “Hello, this is the police, we’re doing an investigation—”
N: So you had to do interpreting for the police as well?
R: Yeah. So many scenarios. It was insane. And sometimes the call would be like 1 hour, 2 hours, it was really intellectually challenging. I worked there for 6 months. In total I stayed in Senegal for 10 months. I became tired of Senegal. I mean it wasn’t my destination, right? It became routine. Like, I need to just travel, I need to just get fresh air, see something new. And at that time is when I discovered a thing called Au pair. Basically you live with a family that have children and you take the kids to school, bring them back, sometimes help with house chores.
N: A live-in babysitter?
R: Yes. A live-in babysitter.
N: And while all of this is going on, what leads you back to modelling?
R: Oh! I was always doing modelling. I was doing it in Senegal but I was doing it as freelance. Like, for Instagram I would contact brands and they’ll say if they want to shoot with me or not, I had, I think, just 3 photoshoots when I was in Senegal, but yeah, it added to my portfolio, which I liked.
N: What led you then to decide: “Hey, I can wear my hijab and model at the same time”?
R: I think there was a lot more representation between 2017 and 2019. That’s when it really started. A lot of the hijabi models had representation and I tried, I took my shot and it worked out. LAUGHS.
N: Would you say it was easier in Senegal, modelling with the hijab?
R: Yes. I think it's because a lot of people wear the hijab there. And a lot of them also want to show inclusivity. So, after 10 months there I moved to Spain. I found a family there. I stayed for 6 months, and I got tired again. LAUGHS.The challenges I had in hijabi modelling were mostly in Spain. I don’t remember any hijabi models there. I had an agency, and they would send me things like: “Oh yeah, there’s a client that’s interested, but it’s a hair salon.” LAUGHS. And I’m like: “What?” LAUGHS. “Yeah can you, like, wear wigs?” And I’m like: “No I can’t, I’m wearing a hijab. Sorry.”
N: How do you select the jobs or the contracts that you take? Even with your agency, how do they present you to clients? If your agent wants to send you out for a job where you have to remove the hijab, then I take it they don’t have a full understanding of what a hijab means for you. So even when you approach an agency, how does that discussion go and do you speak to them and tell them: “this is what I do, this is what I don’t show, these are the types of jobs.” How does that all transpire for you? How does that progress?
R: It comes naturally. As soon as I talk to them, they ask: “Do you keep this?” (circling finger around face). I’m like: “Yes, yes. I’m a hijabi model.”
N: I’m going to ask you this: what does wearing the hijab mean for you? When we speak about North America, and even Europe, people don’t even understand what the hijab means: is it required, is it not required, like, whose choice is it? What does it mean for you? For someone who’s watching this, or listening. What does it mean for you, and what is your choice to wear it?
R: Well, the hijab means, for me, my identity as a Muslim woman. Because apart from what I show to the world, when I’m alone religion is really important for me, I try to pray, read the Quran, talk to God a lot, and for me it’s like a reflection of my real identity that I have a hijab on my head. You know directly that I’m a Muslim. So it’s my identity and also, well also apart from that it’s Islamic, I also really like modest fashion. I like to wear modest clothes and stuff like that.
N: What is modest fashion?
R: I decide what people get to see from me. I feel empowered by wearing a lot of oversized clothes on a daily basis. I love oversized clothes. I just feel so empowered that you can’t see any of my shape, you can’t see anything, you see me as a person and none of my body. I feel like I’m less objectified.
N: You. And not an idea. Not the physical you but more of who you are as a person inside not just the external.
R: Yes, I’d rather get compliments on my outfits because they’re cool than: “You have a bomb body.” LAUGHS.
N: When you’re on a shoot can a person not touch you in a particular way? Like, sometimes it can be very personal, you have models who, especially at a show and they have to change … it’s not necessarily the most modest environment, it’s nothing sexual, it’s a question of being efficient on set.
R: Mm-hm. What I’ve noticed from my first runway in Niger, with the other models, I would hide to change. There were male models and women, so I was shocked. Obviously I wasn’t judging because we are all free, you know, in a free society everyone can do anything they want as long as they respect the world. LAUGHS. But, a lot of them were not wearing anything when they got changed. They just didn’t care. I was just like: “I can't do this, I can't do this.” So, I would go back and hide myself in the change room. Even on other photoshoots it's the same. I would go to the car … remember?
N: I remember. We brought you a tent.
R: Or the tent that you had. That photographer was amazing. It’s a good hack that you just go there and have a changing room in the middle of the street. That’s great. I would just get changed by myself, I wouldn’t mind being touched because it’s just to get the clothes on. By a woman, obviously. But I wouldn’t mind if it was to just fix a thing. I don’t mind that at all.
N: Have you ever had to refuse a contract because you’re like: “I can’t do that”?
R: Yeah. Totally. So many. Even here in Montreal. I think two of them, they’re like: “Yeah, we have short dresses and stuff”, I was doing the summer collection and they’re like: “Would you be able to?” And I’m like: “Nah, nah, sorry, no.” They say: “Oh, it won’t work, but maybe for the Fall collection because it’s going to be more modest.” And in Spain, the hair salon thing wasn’t the only thing, they even asked me to wear transparent clothes, and I was like: “Well, yes I guess, if I have like leggings and a long sleeve shirt under”, and they were just like: “SPANISH”, and that’s when I learned the meaning of that word. I was typing “SPANISH” in Google and it means underwear. I was like: “Whaaaaaaaaat. Like, underwear? With transparent stuff and my hijab. Nonononono. I ain’t doing that.”
N: So, from what I’m understanding, you have a lot of pride in your religion and it’s a lot of who you are. It’s your connection to your religion. But it’s also about showing pride in who you are and the faith that keeps you grounded.
R: Exactly. LAUGHS.
N: I mean overall how would you say the fashion industry has received you? And from what I’m hearing it’s different in different places of the world. I know you’re also spending time in London.
R: My real modelling experience was in London during Fashion Week, 2019. What I experienced with the hijab ... Let’s say, there were castings where clearly the client was really into the body showing.The casting director, who I’m not going to name, was asking the models to wear a beige dress and told us to walk. He told me to walk but he was clearly not going to pick me up, he didn’t even make me try the dress on.
N: A light beige dress that you had to wear?
R: Yeah, and very, very short. And another time … which wasn’t just for wearing the hijab, it was also for being black. I was with two other friends, models, they were in the same casting as me. One was light skin and the other was hijabi. There was other black models. That brand, we noticed because it was a very huge casting of a thousand girls, wouldn’t pick up the cards of any girls with dark skin colour. And it wasn’t an accident because you could literally see they only wanted very fair, fair skin, light skin, blonde girls, with very light eyes. They were the only cards that they were picking up. And I was like: “Okay, maybe we’re just being very judgmental—”
N: Like when you say with blonde hair, and light coloured eyes, I’m thinking they were only picking white models at the time?
R: Yeah, not even like a little bit. Like, you don’t like black, maybe you like light skin? No, no, no. They just don’t like anything that’s coloured. And I was like: “Maybe we’re just being judgemental, let me just check up their brand online, on their website and Instagram, maybe we can prove that we were wrong.” But there it was the same thing. There were only blonde, light, blue eyes, but maybe there was sometimes brown hair, but even then, very white. So that was clearly racism.
N: You have this section of being a woman of colour and hijabi wearing model, so that can sometimes be seen as a double whammy.
R: I don’t know if it’s a fact but I thought about it. If a brand wants to show inclusivity they don’t have to take two models—a hijabi and a black—they can just take me. So there they show double inclusivity in one shot. It would be a good thing but for those that are not even going to look at me—
N: When we talk about fashion in the fashion industry, what would you like the fashion industry to know about working with a hijabi model?
R: It’s just like working with any other models, if you’re looking for the performance, the qualification, if she has experience then you’ll have a great shoot because she’s a model, apart from the fact that she wears a hijab. She’s capable. So you can get an amazing shoot, a very great shoot but she’s just going to model for the clothes that are more modest. If you want to show some clothes you can show that people can wear them in different ways; then it’s also good because she can just wear something under for people that don’t necessarily don’t want to show their body. There’s this option. But it’s the same thing … oh, and also not to ask them to do things, hijabi models mightn’t be as strong in their affirmation, so if the client asks them to wear short sleeves, they’re not going to want to but they’re probably going to do it because of the pressure. So if the client sees that she’s a little bit uncomfortable say: “It’s up to you, I don’t mind” and see how she reacts to that.
N: What is your motivation for modelling?
R: It’s a mix. It’s something that I always enjoyed doing since I was 14 years old. I wanted to do modelling because I liked it. If I would have to answer that question it would be that to show representation. To show that you can be beautiful and wear the hijab, you don’t need to put away your identity to fit into society, you can follow fashion, you can love make-up and all these things, and still be a hijabi and still have an identity. I really want to show inclusivity, but saying that alone wouldn’t be the total story because I love to do it. I love to act. It’s like acting. Pose, different clothes, different make-up, joke around.
N: There are two questions I want to ask you. One is: how does it all make you feel right now, with all of this cross section of things going on in the world? And being a woman of colour who’s working on being present, and representing diversity, and there’s all these changes happening. How are you feeling lately about everything that’s going on?
R: I mean, what’s affecting me is the discrimination against Muslims, the attacks against Muslims, and all these things. Being criminalised just for the fact that you’re Muslim? That really affects me. Even here in Quebec it’s starting. It started in 2019 with Law 21 that says that you can’t wear any religious sign. It affects every religious person that shows their faith but especially Muslim women in particular. They cannot be teachers or work in anything in the government, and I don’t think that this law makes sense because it’s just not logical, because how am I disturbing others by wearing the hijab, how can it be considered going against the law to wear something on my head, to practice my religion without bothering anyone. I think it’s just Islamophobia. I actually can’t even believe that it’s a thing, anyone that reflects on it knows that it doesn’t make sense at all.
N: Do they see it as if you work for the government then you’re a representative of the government. And the government can’t be secular, and you wearing a religious symbol reflects on the government and therefore maybe puts your religion on the government. That’s some arguments.
R: About this argument, the government is saying that it has to be neutral, that they don’t want religion to be involved in the government and stuff, the thing is just because I’m wearing the hijab doesn’t mean I’m not going to be neutral in my decisions when I work, where one that does not wear a religious sign might do actions that are motivated by personal reasons. Police brutality, we don’t have religious signs, they do it out of pure racism, I don’t think that someone to be wearing a religious sign makes them not able to act neutrally.
N: I’m curious as to what attracted you to Silk Laundry?
R: It’s everything. LAUGHS. No, literally. I scrolled on Instagram and I was looking at the designs, at the way she (Katie Kolidinski) designed it, I loved it. It’s very classy. It’s elegant. Chic. So I thought, I’ll shoot my shot and see if I can model. I was actually really happy that she contacted me back, because I always have that little thing that it might be a brand that might have a clientele, or a customer base, or are more like western, or stuff like that, are not going show a black hijabi model, because it’s a lot of statement in one shot. You know that her clients might not be more open for Muslims and black people, so yeah. It’s only in my mind, I don’t know if it’s a fact, it’s like a little fear that I have. But I was pretty happy to see that she wanted to work with me, and show me as a model for her brand.
N: When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we also talk about sustainability because we see how all of these things work together. I’m curious, that when this conversation of sustainability, and again with everything that’s going on in the world, how does that enter into your life? Or does it? Is it something that you think about?
R: Yes, it is. It is. On the moral view and also on the religious view. I believe that we have to respect the earth. In my religious view I’m not allowed to even harm a tree and you have to respect nature. You can’t destroy it. I think it’s very important to have sustainable brands.
N: I’m gonna ask you something now, kind of ‘what do they get wrong, what do they get right?’ So, what do they get right, what do they get wrong, about you? Your family.
R: Well, my two big sisters are super proud. The sister that’s three years older than me has been a model too. My dad is very much against it. LAUGHS. As I mentioned before he’s also someone who lets you do your thing. He’s not like the controlling dad that’s going to be like: “You do that like I said!” He knows that there’s no point in doing that because you can’t control another human. So he would advise and then he wouldn’t really mind. For example, sometimes if I send him my photoshoot pictures, he won’t answer. I know he’s an introvert so he’s not that talkative. But my mum and I are extroverts. So, sometimes I don’t know if it’s because of modelling, he’s just not interacting that much. When we had the chance to talk about it, he wasn’t really for it, he won’t want his daughter shown everywhere. I respect his position. But mum, she’s been supporting me since day one. She has a mixed view on it, sometimes she’ll be like: “Hm, are you sure you want to do it, because there’s a lot of people seeing you and stuff, it’s better to be low-key.” But she’s supported me since my first runway in Niger. She was in the VIP section of the runway and texting me when I was backstage saying: “Yes! Always with that smile. Gorgeous.” She was really proud. And even when I send her my pictures she’s like: Oh my god. Wow this is … like, you’re my daughter!” When I had the photoshoot for Silk Laundry, I sent her a few of the BTS, and she was like: “Oh my god. This is so beautiful.” She loved the Horses, that outfit she really loved.
N: Friends. What do your friends get right and get wrong?
R: I have friends from all backgrounds, like the friend that I already talked about, she’s Quebecois, she’s atheist and spiritual, believing in all the universe and stuff. So yes, I think she gets most of my personality right, because we grew up together since I was 8 years old, so she knows me from primary school. I think she can understand, I also express my views the same way she expresses the way she sees the world and her beliefs, we have very interesting conversations. I tell her my views, she tells me her views, and she has a good view of me, not good as in positive, but as in clear. Other friends that I know from high school, they think that modelling is very, very glamorous. I’m so used to it that for me it’s not a big deal, in a way it's just a thing I do on the side and I like it. It’s just a photoshoot, but for them it’s like A PHOTOSHOOT. And my other friends, like my very, very close friends, and amongst them is my mom, obviously, as soon as I do my photoshoots and I have BTS and stuff I forward all my selects to them, and they give me their feedback.
N: I’m going to end off with 3 questions. One, I wanted to know: how do you see yourself? Second: how do you think the world sees you? And third: how would you like to be seen?
R: How I see myself? It’s a hard question? It’s a hard question. I’ll give it a try. I start with my personality, I see myself as the maximum level of extrovert. Because I really like to talk with other people, when I travel I talk to strangers like literally every day. When I have the chance I always love to talk to them. But not about small things, I’ll directly go about philosophical subjects, what they think about life, about travel, about humans, about connection, about love, about literally anything. To talk to people and to learn through them. So yes, I’m very extroverted. I always meet new people, talk with them, I’m very talkative, I see myself as being very talkative, and a bit weird sometimes. I will mostly do the thing outside of society norms, or the protocol, let’s say. Things that most people wouldn’t do.
N: How do you think the world sees you?
R: I think when the world sees me through my social media I think they don’t really know who I am in real life. Strangers that would see me on Instagram would be like: “Oh yeah, she’s a model” or something like that, but my person is much different than that it's not limited to my model life.
N: And, how would you like to be seen?
R: I would like people to see me more like my personality than the beauty and fashion part. I do show that a little bit, but I would really like to share my ideas, my jokes and stuff like that. Just like the real me. And yet, coming back to the first questions, how do I see myself? I just answered a little part there, my personality. Also about the religious wise. I wouldn’t say that I’m the religious person. I don’t see myself as being the good Muslim that’s perfect, like, I commit sins and I’m very far from perfect. I also wouldn’t like people to see me as the religious girl because that’s false, I am not like that, I am just trying. And yep. I’m far from perfect. I’m human.
N: What inspires you?
R: Being perfect in my character, trying to get rid of my flaws and the small sins that I commit. To become a better person, more merciful towards people, more loving, more sincere, without being naive, obviously. But what inspires me is to become the woman I want to be in the future, and I’m very, very far from that goal. I think I have a lot of work to do, and it’s inspiring, in a way.
N: What was your life like before COVID and what is your life like now?
R: Well, how my life was? I mean, I’m still working on it. I’m getting over it. Like, we move, right? To answer that question I have to say my life before COVID and uni … they’re the two major things that made me now. Over the past two years, I wasn’t studying. I was just modelling, travelling, talking with strangers in the street. LAUGHS. Making jokes and stuff, just living life, right? And I didn’t have any compromise so my vision was wider. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go to uni. So I thought I could just work as a interpreter or translator without having to study. So my life before, anytime I got tired of living in a place I look at flights and another country. Whenever you wanted to escape anything I would take a one way ticket. Restart everything. New country, new people. New language, new everything. It’s much easier, because there are new challenges when you are in the same country.
N: And now is much more stable?
R: Yeah, exactly. My whole person has changed. It went from just a one way ticket, not caring about anything that much, and thinking about travelling and discovering the whole world, to being forced to stay in the same country. The more I think about it, I think it’s actually a blessing. And also because uni is online is also a blessing in disguise. For exams, for example, we have the rights to use our notes. My classmate told me before COVID it wasn’t like that, you didn’t have the right to have your notes. And I don’t need to go out especially since it’s winter, I won’t have to go out in the snow and go to uni, I can just open my computer. The difference is my vision was towards travelling and discovering new places, now it’s more about getting my degree and getting into the career that I want to do, which is translator/interpreter.
Follow Rakia on Instagram: @rakiamoctar