Supermodel Iman on the Power of Saying No

For International Women's Day, the CARE advocate shares life lessons on knowing your worth and paying it forward.

Iman International Women's Day

Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid has never forgotten where she came from. A refugee from Somalia, the former supermodel and entrepreneur has achieved things most people wouldn’t dare dream of — and with CARE, she’s here to make sure so many other women and girls can. As their first Global Advocate, Iman works tirelessly to support their mission: to save lives, defeat poverty, and achieve social justice by empowering women and girls globally. This International Women’s Day, Iman and CARE are fighting to provide futures and create opportunities where success is attainable — because given the chance, women know how. Armed with her past as a refugee, her mother’s advice on the power of saying no, and the knowledge of how important ‘knowing your worth’ is, Iman is here to pay it forward.

Right at the outset of our call, the beauty founder made sure to emphasize that had NGOs not come and “protected” her, she might not have the life she does today. “At 16 I could have been raped or trafficked, and my trajectory would be completely different if those non-government organizations were not on the ground and cared so much,” she tells InStyle. “They left their families and came to Africa and took care of me.” The experience left an indelible mark on her, and she has since dedicated much of her time and energy to give back any way she can. “I have witnessed what could have been and what it became. Because it was done for me, I'm paying it forward.”

When Iman came to the United States in 1975, she left her home country behind — but not her mother’s advice: Know when it’s a no. “‘No’ to me was a complete sentence. If I knew it wasn't right for me, it was a no.” Iman’s mother hammered home the idea of knowing your worth as a woman and how holding yourself in high esteem can teach you which opportunities to walk away from. 

“When you know that, you will be able to move forward into life because you will be able to know where the exit sign is when you see it. ‘I'm leaving, that's it. I'm not accepting this anymore.’ As much as I was and always am my father's daughter, that was instilled in me by my mother, a woman.” Iman applied this mindset to her first couple of modeling jobs after she saw casting directors wanted to pay her a fraction of what her white counterparts were making. After standing her ground, she was earning the same amount of money in as little as three months. Her mother’s counsel has stuck with her ever since.

Iman has never doubted just how far she could go, catapulting her modeling days into an expansive career in TV, film, and then launching her makeup line, IMAN Cosmetics, in 1994. The woman knows her worth and then adds tax! She now shares this advice with her own girls, Zulekha and Alexandria.

“I always try to instill in them what was instilled in me by my mom,” says Iman. “As a girl, if you don't know your worth, (and I don't mean monetary worth), what are you willing to walk away from? Regardless of whether it's a husband, a boyfriend, or a friend, what is it that you're going to walk away from and say no to? You have to learn that. Girls don't learn that because we're told from the beginning, ‘You have to be this to be this. You have to be pretty to be this. You have to be skinny to be this. You have to…’ It is always about the outside. Worth is an inside job.”

Another woman who taught Iman a lesson that stuck with her for the rest of her life? Fellow supermodel Bethann Hardison. Throughout a strong friendship that has blossomed over the decades, Hardison co-founded the Black Girls Coalition with Iman, and the two have stood alongside each other, fighting for equal treatment and pay for Black models to this day. 

“One thing she always would say to me: ‘To be an activist, you have to stay active.’” And at 67 years old, Iman shows no signs of slowing down. Where is the end goal for her? How will she know when her work is done? The answer isn’t quite evident. “There is always a need for [activism]. As long as there are human beings, the need is always there.”

Given the life she’s been able to create, it is more important than ever to Iman that she gives back — especially to women who have given and guided her so much. “Women are the ones who get everything done, really. If it wasn't for the women in Somalia, I don't know. The people who kept it together, who kept everything going, who kept educating girls and the children and all that were the women. And so it's to empower them so that they can be the best they can be for their own communities.”

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