The Egyptian modeling agency “decolonizes beauty standards”

woman standing near tree

Cairo – Iman Eldeeb’s model agency has been slowly breaking ground in Egypt’s fashion scene, hiring a variety of models amid the frenetic rush of changing clothes and photographers getting ready for shoots.

Eldeeb made a name for herself in Milan, the European fashion capital. There, photographers said she was “the first Egyptian model” they had ever seen. She returned to Egypt seven years later in 2018, and began shaking up an industry that still holds old stereotypes.

Eldeeb said that the Arab world’s largest nation has been dominated for decades by “girls with fair complexions” from Eastern Europe. According to Eldeeb, 28 years old, such outdated standards make it difficult for Egyptian or Arab models to enter the industry. Beauty cannot be limited to a certain skin color, complexity, and so on. Eldeeb says that she feels this is a misperception of beauty. “Hair colour, eyes colour, all these were part of an ancient understanding of beauty, and this is something that we are trying to get rid of as much as possible.”

According to The Fashion Spot (a website specializing in the industry), “models of color” made up more than 43% of global catwalks for fall 2021, making it “the most diverse season ever”.

Eldeeb, who traveled the globe as a model and said that she saw a new trend in more diverse bodies and faces.

woman standing near tree

She and her sister Yousra founded UNN Model Management in Egypt. The name means “rebirth” in the language spoken by the Nubian black minority. This agency provides a platform for Egypt’s budding talent who are not supported in the highly competitive Egyptian fashion industry. Eldeeb said that the fashion industry in the Arab world is still growing. UNN is a leader in the emerging Egyptian fashion scene, overseeing around 35 contracts with top brands like Adidas, Louis Vuitton and Levi’s.

Race issues

Mohsen Othman (also known as Lemosen), is a freelance photographer who regularly works with UNN. He praised UNN for its “daring” approach. He said that Egypt’s photography industry lacks the resources and creativity it needs.

Sabah Khodir is an Egyptian activist against gender-based violence. UNN is a force to “decolonise beauty standards” as well as “deconstructing internalised racism.” “Making fashion more visible, whether it’s on-screen or off-screen, can save lives.” Khodir spoke out about the under-representation of women.

Adhar Makuac Abiem is a South Sudanese model who has endured many racial insults in Egypt’s chaotic capital Cairo. She never dreamed that she would be employed by a local agency when she arrived in Egypt in 2014 as a refugee. She said that many times she was told she was too dark or ugly to be hired by any agency. The 21-year old has built a successful career as a UNN model.

Marie Grace Brown, a University of Kansas researcher and author of a book about women’s fashions in Sudan, stated that Egypt is very similar to the West, where prejudices still persist about people with dark skin. Abiem has tried to be a role model for young black women working in the fashion industry, but that is just the beginning.

“A form of healing”

Mariam Abdallah (22), was busy styling Mariam’s hair for a photoshoot. She said that she has been modeling more overseas than in Egypt often getting responses like: “We are not interested in ‘exotic’ models”.

In a conservative Muslim country like Saudi Arabia, parents must consent to their children’s sexual conduct. Eldeeb says that three quarters of parents are concerned about images of their daughters as models being “misused” online.

Concerns are also raised about the wearing of revealing clothes and working at “inappropriate hours” by young women. She said that no matter what profession, parents try to make the best decisions for their daughters.

According to the World Bank, less than 20% of Egyptian women have a job in 2019. Eldeeb was able to obtain work visas in France for some of her models, which is a first for talent from Egypt.

Abdallah recently left Egypt to work with approximately a dozen agencies in Europe, the United States and other countries. This gave her an independence and purpose.

Khodir believes that the importance of developing Egyptian talent to work for international fashion houses is more than just a business decision. She said, “It’s an act of healing that we desperately need.”

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