As Hamdia Ahmed strutted down the stage in Portland, the bright lights made her gold sequin dress sparkle. At the end of the catwalk, she faced a crowd of a couple of hundred strangers and a panel of judges.

The only real difference between Ahmed and the 23 other Miss Maine USA contestants who walked down the stage in their glittery evening gowns on Nov. 25 was that Ahmed donned a hijab. She was the first Muslim woman to do so in the Miss Maine USA pageant.

Being the first isn’t something that has ever deterred Ahmed.

“When I was younger I always wanted to be the first Muslim girl in a magazine wearing the hijab,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed was born in 1997 near the border of Somalia and Kenya. Her mother, Mumina Ali, was escaping violence in Somalia on foot with her children when she went into labor with Ahmed. Ali said that after she gave birth the other people in her group told her to abandon the baby because there was no way that she could survive the rest of the journey to the refugee camp, Dadaab, in Kenya. But Ali refused to leave her newborn behind and walked for three days after giving birth to make it to the camp. Ahmed lived in Dadaab with her family until they were resettled in the United States in 2005.

Ahmed, now 19, lives with her family in Portland. She said she decided to do the pageant for two reasons: to open doors in the modeling world, and to open doors for other Muslim hijabi women on the Maine pageant scene. “Representation matters,” Ahmed said.

When Ahmed told her mother she wanted to participate in the pageant, Ali said at first she was hesitant but supported her daughter’s choice. “If she stayed true and respected herself and her values, I was fine with it,” her mother said. “She is in America, so freedom.”

To qualify for the pageant, contestants are interviewed and must pay a fee of about $1,100. Some receive sponsorships from businesses.

Ahmed appeared in floor-length, long-sleeved dresses at the pageant, and during the swimsuit competition she wore a “burkini,” a modest swimsuit made for Muslim women. “I’m only worried about myself and being who I am,” Ahmed said. “I will respect other women in however they dress just like they should respect me with how I dress.”

Ahmed’s mother, sister and four nieces came to the pageant on both nights to support her. “My family was the hypest!” Ahmed said. The second night they brought a sign with positive affirmations, such as “It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about saying you did it!”

Ahmed said her fellow Miss Maine USA competitors and the pageant organizers treated her like any other contestant. Before going on stage the second night, Helena Higgins, a contestant from Belfast who was familiar with Ahmed’s background, told her, “After all you’ve been through, you’ve got this.”

“I feel like I broke barriers in Maine,” Ahmed said. “Because I think people were like, wow, this girl is just like every other girl out on this stage, she is just dressed differently. Some people might see me at the grocery store and tell me to go back to my country, or that type of thing, but nobody said anything like that to me (at the pageant). I was just one of the American girls.”

The winner of the pageant was 22-year-old Marina Gray, an Army National Guard sergeant in the 133rd Engineer Battalion in Brunswick.

Ahmed didn’t place in the top 10 at the pageant, but she said it was a positive, “life-changing experience” for her. She isn’t sure whether she will participate in Miss Maine USA again next year, but said she hopes more Muslim women in Maine will try to win the crown.

“I would love to see a Muslim girl win the pageant in the state of Maine. To go out there and say: ‘This is who I am. I’m not going to change who I am, but I belong here. I have the same dreams like all of these girls, but I want to dress modest and respect my culture and religion.’ I want to see that day happen.”

Pageant or no pageant, Ahmed has big dreams. She wants to become a model but is focusing on her political science degree at the University of Southern Maine. Ahmed said that “2018 is about to be my year.”

She added: “Inshallah” – If Allah wills it.

Brianna Soukup can be contacted at:

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