When Egyptian tribal wear fashion designer Amna El Shandaweely was twelve years old, she started collecting fashion magazines. For a child, who used her mother’s curtains to redesign her doll’s outfits, becoming a designer was only the natural sequence. Browsing the covers of those magazines little Amna would ask her mother “Why do ALL these girls look nothing like me or my relatives? Why do they all have fair skin? How did they get to be on the covers of those magazines?”
Then there is drop dead gorgeous Gehad Abdalla, who works in the fashion industry and styles A-list celebrities for a living. When her ex-mother in law first met her, she told her son “heya helwa bas samra” (She is beautiful but has dark skin). Gehad never allows society, the media or beauty brands to define beauty for her or affect her self-image, in any way.
If there is one thread that unites these two women, it would be how they break imposed beauty standards, staying true to themselves and loving the way God created them. Most of us grew up watching TV and reading magazines wondering why we don’t look perfect like “the woman on the cover”. Feeling pressured to straighten our hair, dye our hair blonde and apply lighter shades of foundation has dominated the lives of many Egyptian girls longing to match beauty standards often set by Western media and picked up by society.
The real question should be why beauty is always associated with fair skin and blonde hair? Who do we allow to dictate how grown women need to look like and how girls should aspire to become? How come that a North African country with a majority of dark skinned people claims Caucasian beauty standards? If we need to understand something about beauty, it would be to comprehend the genuine beauty of diversity and embrace our genetic heritage. Again, we need to change the narrative. If our stories are not told and our photo is not shared, then we have a duty to change the narrative and take measures in our own hands.
Egyptian women come in all shapes and sizes, in all shades of brown and olive, with all kinds of hair and each of it is a genetic love story of ancestry and heritage. A story of pride and self-love, a story of courage and maturity. Let’s break free from harmful stereotyping and embrace our real and genuine beauty by allowing the most powerful revolution to happen; that of being our selves.
Amna El Shandaweely
When Amna El Shandaweely was ten years old, she went for Eid shopping with her mom in Alexandria. Only to find nothing but pink fluffy dresses, which did not suit her or express her identity. She is one of many little girls who just want to have fun in shorts and jumpsuits.
At this point, Amna was introduced to a world, where she can design her very own dresses and any outfit she wants. Her mother took her to a tailor and she kicked off a bright future full of fashion statements tackling eye opening issues. Almost a decade later, twenty seven year old Amna, becomes founder and CEO of Amna Elshandaweely, the Egyptian tribal wear brand that intertwines traditional tribal trim with hip street style, combining culture, history and even architecture to create thoughtful, yet trendy pieces.
Growing up as a magazine collector Amna saw a picture of “Naomi Campbell” on the cover of magazines and she thought to herself how beautiful she was. This thought never leaving her mind, Amna’s first collection “Road to Fayoum” was as inclusive and real as it can be.
“I wanted to get models who look like my sister, my cousins, and many other real Egyptian women,” she says.
“The model I got for this collection was Menna Hussein, who was a copy of my sister.” Amna explains. Amna thinks people liked the collection, but back in 2009a collection like this was still treated as exotic. Thinking it would just be a one-time thing to check the box of inclusivity.
Since then, she realized that all her steps have a few things in common, she is walking against the status-quo of society. She also realized the power of the issues she tackles through her collections and unique designs. Amna is looking to challenge the norm through every campaign she launches. She did an all dark-skinned models shooting aiming to change the beauty norms. She stood against color discrimination in collection by featuring dark-skinned women and men Road to Nairobi and last but not least in her collection, The City of The Amazigh.
A lot of girls with dark skin, look up to natural curly heads like Amna and send her messages on social media telling her they love her work and her curls!
“My mom never straightened my natural curly hair and this created so many insecurities for me when I was a little girl,” she says.
“I asked myself why I don’t look like one of the girls with long straight hair, but it made me who I am today”, Amna says. Racing against all trends, Amna recently cut her curls into a pixie cut and the reason behind it is also related to breaking beauty standards. “A few months before I shaved my head, I did a story on social media about how people are now considering curly hair a trend, but that it’s starting to backfire when it gets commercial and mainstream”, Amna explains.
Never wanting to follow trends blindly and embracing uniqueness in every way possible, she didn’t want to be identified just by having exotic curls. She loves her face, her skin and her work and designs. She goes on to explain that she hears women saying, “I hate my hair and I want to have curls”, she adds that with the wrong message about forcing curly hair, girls who don’t have curly hair feel insecure and left out. “The curly hair movement was about embracing natural curly hair, not forcing women who have straight hair to buy expensive products to follow the trend”, Amna continues about why we miss inclusivity and diversity in our society, she goes on to talk about how the media is the most important messenger of featuring diversity.
She believes that when we are growing up we are always seeking to look like the woman on the cover of the magazine. “I read “heya helwa bas samra” on social media as a comment on my wedding pictures, but I was glad people responded asking those commentators “Why is a dark-skinned girl not pretty?”, Amna adds.
There’s no stopping unique trendsetter, Gehad Abdalla. As a celebrity fashion stylist she works in an industry that has long been depicting and showcasing models, which look the closest to western white women. From fair skin to long straight blonde hair, slim perfect bodies and the list goes on. The persuasive Nubian origin stylist speaks her mind about the issue of beauty standards and including diverse women in her everyday work and on fashion shoots. When Gehad works with brands in styling fashion shoots, sometimes the brands wouldn’t want to include a dark-skinned model, on the grounds that she is “not beautiful enough”. “If a dark-skinned woman saw the designs of your brand wouldn’t she wear them?
“I want to see myself in this dress but the woman wearing it doesn’t represent me,” Gehad says.
“Businesses need to see inclusivity as a step that’s beneficial for them. Even from a business standpoint we cater for everyone,” she adds.
Gehad has been working in the media and fashion industry. She worked as a fashion editor and stylist at Enigma Magazine and as a fashion director at MO4 Network. She also worked as a Managing Partner in leading PR agency Carousel World, alongside her equally inspiring sister, Daliah Galal. Gehad has styled several top celebrities in TV series and films.
Chatting with Gehad about an infamous Egyptian stereotype that wearing white isn’t suitable for women with dark skin, she says that it’s a problem of how we see ourselves and why we dislike being darker in the first place. “I love wearing white, it’s actually my favorite color. I think it compliments me. What’s the problem with looking darker?”, she adds.
Growing up, thankfully Gehad had all the support she needed from all power women in her life. She and her sister, Daliah, were raised to believe they are beautiful and to feel comfortable in their own skin. “Growing up in Aswan, I was always surrounded by beautiful dark-skinned women, I used to see my mother as very beautiful. I never asked my mom why do I have darker skin or why do I have different hair than other girls in my school”, Gehad says. When Gehad first heard the comment “heya helwa bas samra”, her confidence and intellect kicked in, which led her to laugh it off with her mom, when she told her about it later. “I feel sorry for people who think like that, they are mothers who are about to see their sons getting married and all what they care about is that their wives have fair skin”, she says.
As a child watching TV, Gehad would notice that there aren’t many stars and actresses that are dark skinned. “I knew that there was a problem, we know that the audience are not used to seeing dark skinned women on TV. “When we become inclusive in the media, it will be the norm to see diverse beauty on the screen,” Gehad says.
“When we become inclusive in the media, it will be the norm to see diverse beauty on the screen.”
Giving examples of dark-skinned Egyptian stars who previously had challenges and finally made their way into fame by proving their talent, she reminisces on legend Ahmad Zaki who faced challenges, it took time for people to see his brilliance.
Passing on her experience in styling, Gehad talks about how some of us are blindly following fashion rules and losing our fashion identity and identity at large in the process. She adds that there’s a stereotype, that to be lovely you have to be fair, “The products we see every day tell us you have to be white to be beautiful, I don’t understand why some makeup artists use whitening products or foundation when they do my makeup. I want to be dark and have my dark skin”, Gehad adds.
“The products we see every day tell us you have to be white to beautiful.”
Looking at the bigger picture Gehad, doesn’t let racist comments get to her, she is very proud of her origin and mentions that she gets calls from people who want her to compete for Miss Egypt or Miss Africa, “you look so Pharaonic, they say. I feel different, it’s a good thing to be unique, and it’s a gift.”
What if the Beauty of Diversity becomes the new beauty standard? A standard that makes people who work in the film and beauty industry think twice when they choose to leave out a talented black skinned or curly haired actress. A standard that makes society question how they perceive beauty. A standard that will influence us by women like Amna and Gehad who could be the role models we have been wanting to look at in magazines and think they look like us. Looking like the woman on the cover through embracing natural and diverse beauty.
Photography: Amina Zaher
Shot at Nut Boutique Farm Lodge
Jewelry by Azza Fahmy
Amna’s Dress by Christine Massarany & Gehad’s dress by Bambah available at Weaving Grace
Hair by Kriss Beauty Salons
Makeup by Dina Rached
Art Director Marihan Ghali