Muslims Who Model- Part 1 of 3: Zohre Esmaeli

Zohre Esmaeli poses for pictures without a hijab.

This series explores models who are Muslim who have had an impact on the fashion industry because of what they wear or what they don’t. Part one focuses on TCK Zohre Esmaeli who is making waves in the European fashion world.

A Bombarded Beginning

Esmaeli as a teenager in Afghanistan.

Zohre Esmaeli is a model from Kabul, Afghanistan who currently resides in Berlin, Germany.  Born into a strict Muslim household, Esmaeli and her family were forced to leave Afghanistan when she was 13 due to the Taliban.  Their escape required them to cross the borders of six different countries over a period of six months until they reached Germany in 1999.

Once in Germany, Esmaeli was introduced to fashion, magazines, photography and the idea that all these things can become art.

A Revolutionary Reinvention

She was discovered shopping at an H&M and was asked to pose for pictures at a modelling agency.  She accepted the invitation and began modelling in secret due to her family’s strict modesty rules.

Her family expected Esmaeli to retain her Afghan identity by wearing the burka and the hijab.  They also anticipated her to agree to an arranged marriage; however, Esmaeli insisted to her family that she wanted to Westernize her look and her lifestyle.

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour, Esmaeli says, “I didn’t like the burka or scarf and . . . when I was discovered as a model, I was beginning to understand what it is to be a woman, how you can use your woman power . . . with what God gave you in your body.”

After many disagreements with her family, she left them behind at age 17.  She eventually exploded onto the world fashion scene, being featured in magazines like Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle and Marie Claire.

A New Form of Freedom

According to the model, leaving Afghanistan was the best thing that ever happened to her.  She credits her exodus from Afghanistan as helping her understand “the meaning of life, to be a human and to have freedom.  Modelling was not for me just a job.  It was the vehicle that helped me find my freedom.”

Despite this newfound freedom, it was difficult to transition into modelling that required her to show more skin.  She was worried about what her family would think, what the Muslim community would say and she was worried about what God was thinking.

When asked about how becoming a model affected her relationship with God, Esmaeli said, “Afghani culture values strict modesty, and removing my head scarf took courage.  For me, it wasn’t easy to work as a model for lingerie.  One day, I was very sad and I called my friend and told her ‘I feel like God doesn’t like me.’ And she told me, ‘Zohre, look. God is so busy with other people or terrorists that you’re the last thing he needs to worry about.’”

A Lasting Legacy

For almost 20 years, Zohre Esmaeli has been one of the world’s top models and is widely regarded as the world’s first and only Afghani supermodel.  In 2014, Esmaeli was appointed as the ambassador to the German Anti-Discrimination Agency.

Today, Zohre Esmaeli owns her own fashion line called Zoraya.  All proceeds go to the charity Culture Coaches which offers support and assistance to refugees.

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