For creator Aya Mohamed, solidarity is always in style
Aya Mohamed hates the word ‘influencer.’ It’s the first label you might reach for when spotting her 30k+ Instagram followers, but for the Egyptian-born, Milan-raised creator, there’s something not quite fitting about the term.
“I feel like the word ‘influencer’ has negative associations. When we say ‘influencer,’ we think of people who are superficial or shallow. I use ‘content creator’ or ‘creative producer’ because it’s the easiest way for people to understand what I do.”
So what does Aya do? She’s a fashion blogger with a social and political conscience. She uses her platform, Milan Pyramid, to spotlight issues that are important to her and her community, having started the blog in 2017.
Named after the city she grew up in and her Egyptian roots, Aya’s blog covers fashion and beauty in a modest way, as well as commenting on political issues such as Black Lives Matter, feminism and Israel's occupation of Palestine.
"In Italy, we’re barely in the first or second generation. We’re still at the stage where we’re fighting to prove to non-Arab Italians that we’re just like them"
The idea for Milan Pyramid came after Aya made the decision to wear the hijab at 18 years old. While she thankfully hadn’t experienced much racism growing up in Milan, she remembers this as the moment when 'everything changed.'
"As soon as I put my hijab on, people went off. Italians were like, ‘What is this new thing? You’re weird.’ They saw hijabis as tourists from the Gulf, coming to Milan to shop, not me as an Italian living there. Even though we’re a big population in Italy, we’re invisible.”
The discrimination Aya felt didn’t stop there. “I struggled to apply for jobs. My friend and I did an experiment where we sent out one CV with my name on it and one with her name. The results were… interesting. I was sure I wasn’t the only girl going through this and wanted to create a safe space, one where I can express my experiences and for others to know they’re not alone," she says.
"I also wanted the site for Italians and non-Muslims to educate themselves, break stereotypes and change prejudices,” Aya explains. It’s not always been easy, and Aya felt like a target at times. “I got threats. The sad part is that that comes from both outside and inside your community.”
“A lot of people have asked me if I find Italy that bad, why don’t I move out? But I love Milan. I think it’s very fertile right now in terms of creativity and you can really shape it. Milan is a very international city, but when you step outside of the safe bubble, you meet the real Italy, where people are very close-minded and bigoted,” she adds.
Travel has been key for the creator, who has been hopping around the world’s most stylish cities to meet other Arabs. She notes how her experiences in Italy are different to her peers in France, who might be third or fourth-generation immigrants.
“It was beautiful to see spaces for people to have a third culture there. In Italy, we’re barely in the first or second generation. We’re still at the stage where we’re fighting to prove to non-Arab Italians that we’re just like them.”
Aya does note that the racism in Milan is different to that we’ve seen in France. “I don’t think Italians have the same visceral hatred [as they do in France]. In Italy, people aren’t used to seeing different people speaking their language. It’s new to them, even though migration started in the ‘80s.”
As for her own identity, it’s been a journey. Aya says that she had an identity crisis in her teens – “I’m Egyptian, Italian, African… everything and nothing,” she says. She recalls a sense of “beautiful nostalgia” going back to Egypt every summer but always felt like “the Italian kid. Then in Italy, I was the Egyptian kid. When I wore the hijab, I was also ‘the terrorist.’”
Aya says that being labelled by others pushed her to consider her identity more deeply. “We’re not just talking about nationality, citizenship and origins, but also the traditions my parents taught me. I wanted to explore them for myself. When you grow up in a religious context, sometimes things are just taught to you without an explanation. I wanted to do my own research.”
After going back and forth with her own questions, Aya decided that she truly “vibed” with being Muslim on her own terms. “I embraced it. That was a happy, beautiful moment. That’s when I started wearing the hijab. When I came back to school, my friends were shocked, but they realised I was the same person. It was the teachers who bullied me. Now, I get invited to schools in Milan to talk about Islamophobia. It’s a circle.”
It’s clear Aya has no plans to slow down. She has two current areas of focus – the first is feminism. “Everyone has their own understanding of the word. I hate white feminism, it’s a form of classicism and racism and not even feminism in my opinion. But when you research it, the first form of feminism was in Egypt, before the British colonised them. With Islamic law, women had freedom of property ownership, controlled their own money, and could vote. The colonisers took all of that away. The West has always tried to lie to us about how civilised they are.”
The second is Palestinian solidarity, which she says makes her very emotional.
Aya is insistent that intersectionality is vital, aligning to create stronger resistance to a common enemy. “Sometimes I hear people asking why Black Lives Matter is aligning with the LGBTQ+ community. I don't care if you think that men kissing is haram, that's not the point. The point is that together, we can achieve a result that benefits us all.”
Even her fashion content is political. “Vivienne Westwood was one of the biggest activists and one of the many examples of fashion icons making statements through fashion. Fashion has such power on society that people don’t realise. I’ve always believed in self-expression and showing who you are. When people say that religion can be practised privately without wearing a hijab, that’s their opinion. But I’ve always lived my life using fashion and clothes to express who I am.”
The conversation around modest dressing has often focused on Muslim women, even though Christians, Jews and people from other religions also choose to cover up. “[With Muslims,] it’s seen as oppression. People feel they need to liberate us. It’s white saviourism. If they saw the same outfit on a Scandinavian girl, they’d think she looked amazing,” Aya says.
“It all boils down to the idea that men and women in the West feel entitled to women’s bodies. It bothers them so much not being able to see my body, that I don’t allow it. But it’s my body. I have the power to decide who gets to see it. Everyone is trying to control women’s bodies, whether it’s with clothes or abortions.”
I ask how we should fight back, and Aya’s answer is simple. “What we’re doing. Just existing and walking down the street is important. It normalises our presence.”
Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages.
Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks