Meryem Slimani, a 36-year-old visual storyteller from Rotterdam, Netherlands, runs an Instagram page dedicated to streetwear that looks like no other.
Slimani runs @meryemsfirst, where she posts photos of her mum Najate Leklye, 67, a retired elementary school teacher from Schoonhoven.
She told BuzzFeed News she first started blogging in 2015 as a means of creative therapy alongside her therapy for depression. She said: “At some point I got frustrated with never fitting into any of those blogger boxes, whether it was the plus size community, sneaker community or mental health community.
“By that time I also had a baby and was in no […] shape […] to find the motivation or energy to produce content and felt so uninspired […] the same people and topics were getting attention over and over again without having real substance.”
The Rotterdammer said she stopped blogging and then decided to just share selfies of herself and her mum which people ended up liking because they’ve got similar fashion styles. Then in 2017, Slimani was asked to produce content for a Dutch brand and she asked her mum to model instead of herself.
Slimani said: “I was just posting whatever I felt like until at one point I focused completely on her because it felt good and we had fun doing it together.
“But more importantly I thought to myself it would probably make for more interesting and unique images that would make my work stand out and hopefully reach more people with time. Because which elderly hijabi woman of colour was being portrayed this way? Not a single one. And I knew I had something special that no one else had.”
She said the aim of her Instagram page was to tell her own stories and show the world that people have more in common when they open up to each other.
“I am also showing that women no matter their size, age, mental health, religion etc can perfectly decide for themselves what they do or don’t [do] with their lives and bodies and can live unapologetically without the approval or judgement of society or their community.
“It’s okay to be you, it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to choose your own path and I hope people in general but mostly women of color and specifically from the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) diaspora are able to see themselves in us and it will give them assurance that they too can stand tall and be proud of themselves, their roots and the choices they make,” she added.
Slimani said she didn’t need a lot of time to convince her mum to be on Instagram. She said: “I just asked her once and she was like ‘okay why not?’ At first she agreed out of love and support for me, she has always been my biggest champion and in her eyes it felt like ‘Okay if I can help my daughter in any way I will do it.’
“But as time passed by and we started to shoot more I saw her eagerness and how serious she took it.
“She told me that I was her first reason but that she also was hoping it would give Moroccan women of the first generation some kind of voice and visibility because women from her generation had a tough time leaving everything behind to come here.
“And she was ‘privileged’ in comparison to most women that came from rural areas who did not know how to read and write unlike her, who was born in the city and had an […] education and job as a teacher in Morocco, so her transition was a lot easier in that sense, because she started working here as a teacher and learned the language very quickly.”
Slimani said that before her mother got breast cancer, she was involved in community work.
She said: “She was always an advocate for fellow immigrants, especially the kids in her school and their families and was always involved with organizations and consulting the city council in ways to help others who were less fortunate and mistreated by the system.
“But when she got breast cancer and retired she took a step back and stopped all her community work, so in a way this thing we’re doing is giving her a voice again and as a result also the women she always was advocating for.”
Their Instagram page has gone viral on the platform several times and they’ve been getting recognised in person. Slimani said: “We receive so much love online and offline – it is very touching to get so much sincere kindness from people all over the world.
“A year ago I would get recognized in the city on occasion but now it’s really every day I go outside, at least one person comes up to me with words of encouragement or just to say hi, my mum now also gets recognized in the village she lives in and every time an article or something goes online the doctor’s wife calls her to congratulate her.
“It’s really funny to us and sometimes it almost feels kinda […] overwhelming because we both did not expect all this attention, but I always love to talk to people and would never not take the time to listen to someone’s story. “
At the end of last year, they also went viral on Twitter because people loved her mother’s fashion looks. She said she decided to tweet because the original tweet that she had quoted was the reason she started photographing her mother.
She said that it was surreal to go viral on Twitter. Slimani said: “My mum was like ‘How is this even possible?’ She doesn’t have any social media and I don’t do anything on Twitter with her so for her it was even more unfathomable.
“Now she pretends to be my content manager, always asking me to post something new, to shoot new stuff again, updates on follower count and new comments, it’s really funny because she has no clue about social media and only just started a computer course two weeks ago.”
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