(Cairo) So far in Egypt, models “were mostly girls from Eastern Europe, with fair complexion, hair and eyes,” says Iman al-Deeb, founder of a modeling agency. But this conception of beauty is “obsolete,” she says.
At 28 years old, ultra-slender figure and curly hair, she began her career almost ten years ago in Milan, Italy, where “great photographers” pointed out to her that she was “the first Egyptian model that they crossed “.
” But why ? Okay, the fashion industry is still developing in the Arab world… but at this point? “, Wonders again from her office in central Cairo the one who appeared in the pages of Vogue Arabia.
Since then, according to the specialized site The Fashion spot, the situation has improved: the Fall 2021 season saw more than 43% of non-white female models on the catwalks, a record.
Back in Cairo at the end of 2018, Iman al-Deeb felt the emerging trend and created with his sister Yousra the agency UNN model management – UNN means “rebirth” in the language of the Nubians, a black ethnic minority in Egypt – to frame the many “budding models” of Egypt, who until now had “no one to support them”.
“Beauty cannot be defined by facial features, eye color or hair,” she told AFP: “We are looking for girls with their own identity, ready to build a personality, regardless of what people think ”.
« Source positive » d’inspiration
Today, she supervises around 35, for contracts with Louis Vuitton, Adidas or Levi’s and is developing a men’s section. On the young emerging Egyptian scene, his agency is already acting as a heavyweight.
“Many still improvise,” Mohsen Othman, a freelance photographer, told AFP. “Here, a girl who is pretty, who has an account (on Instagram) and who poses for a few photographers is a model,” he continues.
Used to hearing passers-by telling her that she is “too dark” or “too ugly”, Adhar Makuac Abiem would never have imagined becoming a model in Egypt, where this 21-year-old woman from South Sudan has been a refugee since 2014.
Yet since 2019, she has joined UNN, a challenge in a country where “as in the West, prejudices persist about bodies with dark skin”, explains to AFP Marie Grace Brown, author of a book on women’s fashion and its political implications in Sudan at the beginning of the 20th centurye century.
Now, the young woman, who grew up watching the parades of the famous Englishwoman of Jamaican origin Naomi Campbell, hopes “in (her) turn to become a positive source” of inspiration for young black girls around the world.
While arranging her curly hair before a photo shoot, Mariam Abdallah, a 22-year-old model, says she works more abroad than in Egypt, where “we are not very interested in ‘exotic’ models” .
Mariam Abdallah left her country “for the first time” thanks to the contracts she now has with more than ten agencies in Europe and the United States.
For Sabah Khodir, Egyptian activist against gender-based violence, UNN is participating in “decolonizing the canons of beauty” and “deconstructing internalized racism”.
“Being more represented in fashion, in the cinema or elsewhere can save lives: it humanizes you in the eyes of the world,” said this thirty-something living in the United States to AFP.
This committed modeling allows women to acquire more “self-esteem”, assures Mme Khodir, a “badly needed form of healing.”
Along with these tough-skinned stereotypes, getting parental consent is another challenge in this conservative country.
According to Iman al-Deeb, “three quarters” of them fear that the images of their daughters will be “hijacked”, that they wear “naked clothes” and consider the hours “inappropriate for young women”.
“Whatever the profession, parents always try to decide for the girls,” adds Iman al-Deeb, while only 18.5% of Egyptian women had a job in 2019, according to the World Bank.
Butme Deeb has already scored points: his models have obtained “modeling” visas for France. It is “historic”, she rejoices.