Get to know our 'It Girl!' Melanie sat down with 'It Girl' Essra and talked about everything from growing up in Dubai to hijab-celebs. Read on for this exclusive one-on-one with Essra and Melanie!
Melanie: Give me some background about yourself, how old are you? Where do you go to school, what are you studying?
Essra: My parents are both originally Egyptian. I’m currently a 22 year old senior at Michigan State University, pursuing a psychology degree.
M: Where do you live?
E: I live in East Lansing, Michigan.
M: How old were you when you put on hijab?
E: I was nine years old when I first put the hijab on.
M: Wow! That’s pretty young. Tell me more about that – was it something your parents wanted you to do? Was it just expected of you?
E: Yeah I used to live in Dubai so everyone around me was accustomed to it. A year before that my sister had embraced hijab. One day I got out of bed and without even knowing it I walked right up to my parents and told them, "I think I want to be a full time hijabi now."
M: Wow that's incredible!
E: I used to practice wearing the hijab to school sometimes. I think my parents expected it from me later on in life, but not that young.
M: So it really came solely from you mashallah.
E: Yeah Alhamdulillah.
M: Did you ever regret that decision later in life?
E: Sadly, after moving back to the US I attended public school. I went through a really rough time adjusting. I felt like if I was "normal" like all the other kids or if I could just "blend in" people would really like me. So I did regret wearing the hijab for a short time.
M: Completely understandable. How old were you at this point?
E: It was in middle school, so I was around 12.
M: When did you regain that confidence in hijab that you so clearly possess today!
E: This probably sounds really cheesy but in 9th grade I went out to "discover" who I was, I wanted to know what I stood for. I was tired of constantly feeling like I didn't belong. For me, I knew taking the hijab off wasn't an option, thus I would need to find a way where I could wear it and still feel confident. I realized, I don't necessarily have to change the way people think, I just have to change my own mindset. The only way I could change my mindset was to drown myself in positive thinking.
M: When you say, "I knew taking the hijab off wasn't an option," why do you say that?
E: By that time hijab became a part of me. I knew I made a commitment to God and honestly I would be too embarrassed to break our promise, even though He is most merciful <3
M: Mashallah that's amazing. When I think about all the girls who have taken off hijab, your response just made me think of the many more who probably had the same thought process as you and decided to keep it on and keep trucking through. What was it like growing up in a majority Muslim country like Dubai?
E: Growing up in Dubai was a change, because since the majority of people are Muslims you tend to take that for granted. For me, Islam no longer became my identity. Does that make sense?
M: Yes! Living in Dubai I can absolutely relate. That's interesting to hear because when you were living here Dubai was a completely different place - far less dunya, glitz and glamour and to hear your sentiments were still the case back then is really interesting.
E: Yeah exactly I can only imagine what it's like now.
M: I feel that way too - I have to hold on to my Islam and my identity and even my hijab so much more here than I did back home in the States. So tell me about the transition when you moved to the states.
E: The transition back to the states made me identify with my Arab-American culture even more. I realized that since I standout I need to represent myself better. Then September 11 happened.
M: Wow - how old were you at the time?
E: I was 10 years old.
M: Tell me more about that - how did that affect your shaping identity?
E: When September 11 happened, my parents told us to stay low. I didn't understand what was going on. I once told my mom, "Mama, I'm American people will know I'm American I don't need to hide." What I didn't realize is that hatred was real. 9/11 shaped me because I constantly felt as though the spotlight was on me. I felt I had to explain and defend Islam.
M: Did you experience any direct hate?
E: Some people told me to go back to my country. I actually thought that was funny because as much as it is their country it's mine too!
M: Yeah that one always kills me. Wow someone told a 10 year old that? That's cold. We've come a long way since then! Switching gears a little, what do you love most about wearing hijab?
E: What I love most about hijab is that it keeps me in check. It doesn't make me too arrogant or too shy. It keeps me right in the middle.
M: What would you say is the hardest part about wearing hijab?
E: Keeping the hijab on is the hardest part. But what I love is that it's a struggle against your own desires and if you can conquer your desire, you can do anything.
M: Have you contemplated taking it off (I know we touched upon it earlier) but later in life especially, have you truly contemplated it?
E: Last year, I truly contemplated what my life would be without the hijab. You're the one that gave me the best advice. Constantly renew your intentions because this world can swallow you up in a second. Whenever I contemplate about taking the hijab off I try to think back to why I'm here. What some people don't realize is that hijab is an everyday struggle.
M: Aww <3 Hamdulilah for Allah (S) sending us the right people in our lives at the right moment! What factor(s) were involved that made you contemplate what life would be like without it?
E: There wasn't a specific reason as to why I contemplated what life would be without hijab, but when you are constantly bombarded with images of non-hijabis, you slowly start to think how life would be different without the hijab.
M: Very true. So tell me about your blog Valessie
! Where did the name Valessie come from and how did it come about?
E: The name Valessie came from combining veil and my nickname, Essie. I was always interested in fashion because it speaks so strongly. For years I've thought about starting a fashion blog, until I got the courage last year to launch it. The reason I started a blog is because one, I love fashion and two, fashion has the power to inspire confidence in others.
M: How has the blog been going? Have you discovered anything about yourself through the process?
E: So far Alhamdulillah I've interacted with so many amazing people. The best feeling is when I'm able to help someone. I've discovered that I want to be a motivational speaker.
M: Tell me about that - how did you discover that - so amazing!
E: I've always been interested in motivating and helping others. After launching my blog I received a lot of people requesting my help or my opinion on a matter. And after going to Turkey this summer I interacted with amazing people that made me realize this was my passion.
M: That's really amazing - may Allah (S) give you tawfiq! It certainly takes a person who is secure with themselves in order to then help others. Mashallah your confidence is inspiring!
E: Aww thank you habibty!! Ameen iA
M: What's your take on the whole hijab-celebrity phenomenon? It has really exploded in the past couple of years.
E: The hijab-celebrity phenomenon is really interesting because people go from regular folks to celebrities in a matter of years. The great thing about it is that young hijabi women can relate to these bloggers, whether they are fashion bloggers or activists. What I love even more is a lot of these bloggers are humble, they don’t flaunt their celebrity status everywhere they go. What do you think of hijab-celebrity status?
M: I also think it’s really interesting and yes a lot of young hijabi women are really inspired! I was talking to a convert the other day who told me the reason she started wearing hijab is cause she was so inspired by the Yaz the Spaz - it was a beautiful thing! At the same time, I think that with that kind of following comes responsibility, so extra care needs to be taken not only to ensure you're wearing hijab properly (unfortunately scrutiny increases when you're in the public eye) but also in terms of the way you present yourself - many of them do a really phenomenal job Mashallah. It's just the few times I see or read something and just cringe because I know how many young impressionable girls are looking up to and literally hanging on every word (or outfit) these girls put out there.
E: Yeah exactly and that’s so scary to think that people are looking up to you. When I went to MIST last weekend a bunch of girls came up to me and were like OMG you're ‘It Girl’ Essra, no joke I had a panic attack after because I realized that I can be influencing these girls.
M: OMG that's hilarious no way! You’re right it’s a huge responsibility. You experienced it firsthand; we don’t even know how wide our breadth of influence truly is.
E: I just hope that they can say I'm inspiring rather than, “oh she’s so pretty” you know?
M: Oh absolutely - totally agree. I was really inspired by our previous ‘It Girl’ Farah, she pretty much stopped posting pictures of herself on her account because it wasn't about her looks - it was truly about inspiring girls to see that hijab can be stylish and beautiful so she focused her account solely on inspiring looks and outfits. That spoke volumes about her character Mashallah, especially in a society that encourages self-obsession and "living for the applause" lol totally quoting Lady Gaga.
E: lmaoooo yeah I noticed that. I've also noticed a lot of girls that have gained popularity then removed the hijab :(
M: Yeah.... :( :( :( That one kills me. I fully realize everyone has their own struggle and it's their right to exercise that struggle outwardly, but I guess when you put yourself out there in the public eye like that you have to be really really really careful.
E: May Allah (S) guide us all to the right path.
M: Ameen!!! After the whole IMFW incident it really made me think about this whole hijabi-celeb phenomenon and if it was healthy for our community. It was just the perfect microcosm of events to highlight some of the things we should be careful of.
E: Yeah, I think anything can either be healthy or detrimental it just depends on how people accept it and especially who is the role model. That's why I think you are amazing mA you are a great role model :)
M: *blushing* make du'a for me - particularly that you don't give me a big head :P May Allah (S) protect us - I just stay focused on my intention but wallah it's scary I worry a lot about whether I'm portraying the right image or message, it keeps me up at night! I remember when you first reached out to me when you were starting your blog we had that intention conversation - it's so crucial! Ok, moving on to lighter topics - how would you describe your style?
E: I like to keep it classy with a little bit of edge. I love symmetry, neutral colors, fur and hats. But at the end of the day it all depends on my mood (which is usually to dress up) :)
M: I want to see you in hats! What is your holy-grail all-time favorite hijab?
E: I have two, one is the Chrysanthemum Craze blue floral HH that I got a while ago, it looks great with everything. And the second is an olive green mesh wrap.
M: Olive green is gorgeous on your skin tone and that HH looks amazing on you!
E: I take it everywhere.
M: What are your favorite stores to shop at? Or fave stores to find awesome hijab-friendly pieces?
E: I'm going to have to say Marshall's because it always has affordable, unique and modest pieces.
M: NICE. What I wouldn't GIVE for a marshall's in Dubai - sometimes you just need adidas pants for $9.99 you know what i'm sayin?
E: lol I completely understand!!
M: Ok - what do you love most about being the Haute Hijab 'It Girl'?
E: *Sigh* being the Haute Hijab 'It Girl' has allowed me to interact with such amazing people. It also pushed me to realize what I really want in life, helping and instilling confidence in others.
M: :D :D :D What advice would you give to someone struggling with hijab?
E: You have to understand that hijab is a constant struggle but a beautiful journey. Like I've said before, you know your strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. With that in mind you have to consider what your purpose is in life, and what's stopping you from putting/keeping it on because if we think about it it's usually outside factors that have a greater influence on whether we wear the hijab.
M: Beautifully said!!! Absolutely it's so important to know yourself! People are so afraid to be by themselves or just to sit in silence. We're always connected - when then, will we have time to really sit and reflect? Know thyself. Simple and straightforward. Ok last question! What is one thing that you would like our HH family (I feel weird using the word followers) to know about you?
E: I always dream big, I mean HUGE, so if I dream big, you have to dream big too and turn your dreams into reality inshallah :)
M: That's awesome. May Allah (S) keep you on this amazing journey and reward you for all your amazing work!
E: Ameen and you as well iA!!!!!!!!!!!
Do you have a question for 'It Girl' Essra? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to follow Essra on Instagram @Essra_Azim!