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Hijabs don't define these women. Merit does.

As Australia’s first veiled reporter on national television, I recognise the significance of fashion icon H&M hiring its first hijabi model. But we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to accepting visibly Muslim women, writes Tahmina Ansari.

“Wow, that’s incredible, I can’t believe it.”

That was my reaction to the news article on the first hijabi model for H&M, Mariah Idrissi, “going viral”.

H&M is a retail clothing giant that not only has a great range for those who are fashion forward, but is now apparently setting a different kind of trend by using a Muslim model for its latest campaign.

Watch the video here. Post continues below. 

Video via H&M

Ordinarily, this would barely be newsworthy. It would be just another model, just another campaign. What makes this sensational is that this model comes adorned with the Islamic headdress, the hijab. She is now the first visibly Muslim woman to appear in mainstream fashion in such a capacity for such a globally acclaimed fashion label.

The news circulated throughout the usual channels and social media is abuzz in the wake of this bold move by H&M.

My initial reaction, however, soon melted away and the reality of my own experiences as an Australian Muslim woman, who also happens to wear the hijab, set in.

I remember when I first set my eyes on journalism and the doe-eyed naivety with which I saw the industry. I was the first Australian Muslim woman journalist wearing the hijab. I made history in 2013 by being the first veiled reporter on national television. I, a once refugee from Afghanistan whose family came to Australia to escape invasion, war and suffering, was just like any other candidate trying to break into a competitive and demanding industry. Only difference was, I did it all wearing hijab.

So of course this is a huge deal for me and I would say for any other Muslim woman who identifies as such, or a person from a minority with visibly identifiable cultural or religious attire.

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This is a rarity and something that is remarkable.

But it is also a recent trend across different industries where women who just happen to be visibly Muslim are highlighted for their contributions — be they social commentators such as Mariam Veiszadeh or media personalities like Susan Carland.

Yet, Australia has some catching up to do.

In 2012, Samoan Australian actor Jay Laga’aia, most known for his role on the ABC’s Playschool, criticised Australian TV for racism and not casting multicultural actors after he was dropped from Channel Seven’s long-running soap Home and Away. Current House Husbands actor Firass Dirani said at the time that major networks weren’t proactive in assisting people from diverse cultural backgrounds to break into lead roles.

Perhaps this “industry” problem is a symptom of a broader issue — prevalence of racism and discrimination in society. According to the anti-racism Australian group All Together Now, one in five children experience racism each day and at sports events. In the workplace, one in three people are subjected to racism. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s “Racism, It Stops With Me” campaign attempts to counter this bigotry but even their public ambassadors aren’t immune to the rising tide. The prime example is former Sydney Swans great Adam Goodes, who took leave from the game earlier this year after being booed by crowds at AFL matches.

Personally, it never even occurred to me that I was setting some kind of a precedent or “trend” by wearing a hijab and following my passion for storytelling. It all seemed so normal to me. Putting on my hijab every morning before work is like tying your shoelace. It’s habitual. It’s routine.

Unfortunately though, it’s not perceived as such for so many. It’s typical to see a Muslim woman in the hijab when it involves a news piece highlighting the garment, though rarely the woman behind it is seen. For this reason, we are continually fighting an uphill battle and with particular reference to my own experiences as an Australian Muslim woman, we are behind the trend.

mariah idrassi
Mariah Idrissi is now the first visibly Muslim woman to appear in mainstream fashion in such a capacity for such a globally acclaimed fashion label. Image via H&M.
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I do not want to take away from the success of Mariah Idrissi. What she is doing takes stamina and a whole lot of grit. She has pluck — I take my hijab off to her. Not to mention the sure backlash she will receive from both ends of the stick.

I am all too familiar with the challenges that come with being in an industry where looking different or being diverse is not necessarily the “in” thing. Where fitting in and looking the part has more to do with it than being just you.

Early in my career, I was warned: “they’ll never put someone like you on Australian television” or “you will make a great writer, don’t bother with TV” by senior media professionals. Though this did have a huge impact on me and it was shattering to hear, I did not and will not allow it to shape the kind of journalist I want to be.

The truth is, this country is one of the most diverse nations in the world. We speak more than 200 languages. But this reality isn’t always reflected in the mainstream.

I have become overwhelmed with the number of friends who have confided in me, ready to give up their careers because their headscarf has become a hindrance to their professional development. It simply saddens me.

I will truly be happy the day it becomes the norm, where we see women of all different shapes, colours and sizes, donning what they want and doing what they do best.

Australia, take note; it’s time to step up and reflect the rich diversity of this country.

Tahmina Ansari is a journalist for ABC News. Follow her on Twitter @TahminaAnsari.

This post originally appeared on the ABC.

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