OTH: Before we jump into anything, you’ve recently rebranded. You’re no longer just Hiba, you’re now also Bntness. Could you tell us more about this rebrand?
H: The way it happened was I worked with Brit Phatal, a makeup artist from Montreal, for a creative shoot, just for fun. They contacted me to do a gig for fun and we ended up really enjoying the whole project. We mixed drag makeup with Moroccan culture and when I saw the pictures, I was like.. It’s time to bring my Moroccan roots back to my Instagram. And so I chose Bntness because bent nass in North African dialect means woman of the people, so I felt it was very on brand and I’ve been rocking it ever since. I wanted Hiba from the podcast to be Hiba from the podcast, and Hiba who does modeling to be Bntness because I want it to always be about my culture, and then I wanted my full name just for activism.
OTH: You clearly have your foot in the door of many avenues. What are the many things that you do? Give us the lowdown.
H: Basically I do a bunch of stuff. I’m an activist on the side with Béliers Solidaire. I work mostly in Montreal-Nord with the youth here, with my old high school.
OTH: What is Béliers Solidaire?
H: It’s a collective of old and current students from Henri-Bourassa High School that basically got together last year due to an event regarding a teacher who was racist. We got together to bring change, to bring justice as well. At the moment I also have a podcast because with two friends I graduated from fashion school with.
HIBA REPRESENTING BÉLIERS SOLIDAIRES ON ASSEMBLÉE NATIONALE DE QUÉBEC
OTH: Les Filles du Quartier?
H: Yes, and so that podcast basically exists because the fashion industry is gatekept, and I feel like it’s also very elitist. With a bunch of people, especially women of colour from my fashion class, we just got together and decided to start the project to speak about fashion, but keep the political context to it, because for us they go hand in hand.
OTH: Fashion is another representation of culture, and if people are trying to gatekeep the cultures that influence it without actually giving due diligence and references to it.
H: Totally, and that’s the reason why we also started the podcast. In our classes we noticed that there was a context that was not mentioned, the cultural context. Let’s say we were talking about sneaker culture, the teacher would just go ahead and talk about how the prices are very high, it’s very tough to get them now, etc. but they forgot to talk about where all of this came from. Like when Jordan’s weren’t this hype, but then young white kids who were privileged took over the whole culture and are now reselling them and the prices get higher and higher. So all of that information we just make a podcast and discuss all of that. Aside from that, I also model on the side.
OTH: For Good Faces?
H: Yeah exactly.
OTH: It’s grown pretty fast. At the beginning of the pandemic we stumbled onto the page and thought “We like the name of this, this is fun” and then fast forward, they’re just blowing up.
H: Even myself I lose track. Every single day I see we have new people signed, it’s kinda crazy. But that’s Mia, the girl who started all of this, that’s her talent. She’s able to find people from Montreal and she just reaches out to them. That’s how I got in, she decided to reach out to me. I like working with Good Faces mostly because like I said, it’s people who are not usually seen in the fashion industry. So we don’t get as many opportunities in the traditional market let’s say, but with Good Faces that’s the goal. I think that Montreal really needs it, cause there’s this gap between the current wave in the fashion industry and the oldies or OGs that are already settled down.
OTH: Let’s touch base about Les Filles du Quartier a bit more. In one of your episodes you dropped with Santiago, and you touched on a couple of points not just about how fashion is gatekept to people of colour but also just people who are seen as “the others”. Can you tell us a bit more about why you started this podcast and where do you see this podcast going? You started this podcast in 2019, so do you plan on keeping this going full speed? You have so many different projects on your plate already with modelling, podcasts, and activist groups. Which takes your main attention?
H: So with the podcast, we really want to go further. Add more to it, add a video aspect, add guests to our episodes. But in general the reason we started it was because we have a lot of opinions and a lot to say but nobody to listen. So that episode with Santiago, I think a lot of these conversations are happening but not with the people involved. To be a latin gay man is a lot different than being a white gay man and so to have him and give him a platform and discuss his experience, because culture does influence how he lives his sexuality, to have him speak about that, I feel is so important. Our name Filles du Quartier is because we all come from “the hood”, so to have people from our neighbourhood, our culture, come forward and speak about their experiences in a safe space, and not just be us interviewing them to add some sort of “token points” to our name, is the main goal. We just want to have a safe space to discuss whatever we want to say because for example if I go back to fashion school, it just felt like we were animals in a zoo. People would ask me questions just because they'll listen but won’t do anything about it. They just want to hear your answer and that’s it.
CLIP FROM LES FILLES DU QUARTIER PODCAST
OTH: Was there an inspiration that led you three to start this podcast?
H: At the end of school we have an event, it’s like a big project. At first we just wanted to just plan something about hair to help hijab and black women like coming up with a salon and a whole concept, but the teachers didn’t really agree with the idea. I think out of frustration because we got denied we decided we’d start a fashion and give them the idea that it’ll just be about fashion. We won’t talk about politics so we’d get good grades and whatever, but once we graduated we turned it into what it is today. But the podcast that did inspire us the most I think was the 4YE Podcast from Toronto. They don’t even talk about fashion, it’s just a bunch of dudes who talk about random stuff, but I think the inspiration was just like… They come from Brampton and just got together, make jokes, and now when you bring them up in Toronto and especially Brampton, everybody knows them. So that’s what we were aiming for. If they were able to make it in Toronto then we have to bring the same thing to Montreal. But we’re a bunch of girls so we aimed for women mostly, but now it’s much bigger and different and we’re aiming for a much more diverse demographic.
OTH: Since you started, when you record the podcast, do you just sit down and say “today’s topic is THIS” and then start it, or do you try to plan it out a little more?
H: It really depends. We do have episodes where we plan them ahead, like we find the subject and if we have a guest that we think will be good for the episode we invite them. So a bit of our episodes are planned, but the thing is even though we plan them, we’re gonna start talking and it’ll eventually lead to something else and snowball. So in one episode there’s like 5 subjects, then we chop them up and have multiple episodes. But most of our episodes are planned, the subject has to be planned.
OTH: Do you find it difficult to find people to participate in your podcast?
H: Honestly it’s very easy. Like I said, a lot of people have a lot to say but they just don’t have the platform. I think the only issue is finding the subject, and the time. But finding guests is easy because thankfully there’s a lot of people who want to get involved.
OTH: Have you landed any cool opportunities or anything in regards to the podcast?
H: I don’t want to say I’m sad but it breaks my heart a bit because most of the opportunities we get are from friends, because one of the girls on the podcast is originally from Paris. So the opportunities are from there, but Montreal is still a bit more closed off. We’ve had other podcasts that have invited us to speak with them, we collaborate with local podcasts, but in the fashion industry itself, it’s mostly with friends in Paris.
OTH: But you have done stuff in Paris?
H: We’ve worked with fashion brands and designers that she knows in Paris. Mostly discussions and plans, but they reach out to us, but in Montreal it’s a bit more underground.
OTH: So you have the podcast now which you’re planning on pushing out more episodes, more video, more guests, etc. but you also have this modelling career. Which do you plan on pursuing more actively, activism or modelling? Not to say that you can’t do both, but which one kind of takes priority, or do you plan on finding a happy medium between the two?
H: Honestly, I believe the modelling came to be from my activism. The reason why I even got into modelling was because I felt like everybody was being represented in Montreal except for Hijabi women, so I felt like I had to take that role. But I wouldn’t want that career or hobby to take over the activism side of my life because I feel like that’s the main motivation behind everything. It motivated my podcast, it motivated my modelling career, me going into fashion school, everything. So ideally I’d like to merge the two, but if we’re being honest, there aren't many opportunities yet for Hijabi women. It’s still very taboo to have us in public considering the political climate in the province, so I don’t think it’s something I could even think of full time cause there’s just not enough opportunities, so it’s still on the side for now.
OTH: How long have you been modelling for exactly?
H: Almost two and a half years with Good Faces.
OTH: And how many shoots have you been able to do? You had a pretty big one that was in Time Square for Youth to the People, which is fire by the way. How big was that one? It looks massive!
H: I saw it in person, and it’s bigger in the pictures haha. It was a bit awkward to see my face up there that big.
BNTNESS FOR YOUTH TO THE PEOPLE IN TIME SQUARE, NEW YORK
OTH: How’s it feel to look at yourself and be like “Damn, that's me!”?
H: Haha, it’s very weird. I don’t know how to explain the feeling. But for me I don’t see myself, I see someone else. It’s very weird. But that brand deal I feel opened up more opportunities locally, which I feel represents the industry in general. In Montreal we wait for others to do something before we join them. So when that happened, Youth to the People is from L.A., so when the campaign started, that’s when more local brands started to reach out. But in general I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many shoots I’ve done. I’ve done a bunch of creative shoots, brand deals, etc.
OTH: Do you plan on trying to solely take contracts that push for inclusivity or would still take a contract that’s just a normal brand deal? Do you only take contracts that allow you to push your activism?
H: The main thing I told Good Faces when I started with them was that I needed all of the deals and gigs that I was doing to align with my values. So I wouldn’t really be open to work with a brand that let’s say is publicly anti-palestinian because I am really for the palestinian cause. So issues like that, I need them to align with me because I jump in and sign on. I need to know what their background is on those types of issues. It’s important to work with a lot of creatives, but if I don’t know, politics are too important for me to just push aside.
OTH: Does Good Faces do that for you? Do they research the brands that then pitch it to you?
H: Yeah that’s another key element of Good Faces actually. They always make sure that they’re working with good brands. They try to push more projects where it’s not just a campaign about diversity because tokenism is a big thing in the fashion industry where they’re gonna reach out to you because you’re a woman of colour and they need exactly that for their diversity campaign, but that’s all they need you for. They always make sure to do a check on the brands.
OTH: You mentioned how Montreal sometimes seems to be just catching up on or waiting for others to do first, but why do you think that’s the way it is in regards to the fashion industry and how can we change that?
H: I think it’s just because the fashion industry is being gatekept. So there’s two waves within the fashion industry. We have brands like Atelier New Regime that are growing fast and are known across Canada, but locally not as much. It’s the same thing as Kaytranada in the music scene. His music is known internationally, but you don’t hear his music on Quebecois radio. So for example, Kaytra continued to work, but he would connect with people outside of Montreal who were willing to work with him, built his whole career and only now he’s getting acknowledged. I feel like that’s what we have to do in the Montreal fashion industry. New brands coming up, new creatives, new models, even if we see that the traditional industry isn’t welcoming us in, we just have to create a space, we have to continue to create and push it until they eventually acknowledge us. At this point I’m not sure if that traditional industry will ever help us out or welcome us in, so it’s just a matter of us building and inviting ourselves onto the table cause they’re not going to do it for us.
OTH: How do you think creating that space you’re talking about can happen?
H: I think social media is helping a lot. So reaching out to creatives that would be able to work with you on a campaign such as photographers, makeup artists, etc. and just publish that content. Connect with people from here, Toronto, everywhere. I feel like social media is the best way to push it, and that’s how it worked for me. Once I made my initial connections, it was almost like a domino effect and more brands started reaching out.
OTH: So kind of like creating a network of similar minded people? Like power in numbers.
H: Yeah. Basically a leverage to open the door for opportunities. But you have to build that circle before you do that.
BNTNESS WITH MAKEUP DONE BY BRIT PHATAL
OTH: You have one more platform we haven’t spoken about. Your TikTok. You’re very present on TikTok, but what type of channel of communication is it for you?
H: I started it with translations of North African songs, specifically Moroccan songs, and I was more on rap/hip-hop from Morocco. Then it turned into me creating playlists and it kept growing. So I still do the translations, and I’ll post a few political TikToks here and there, but the main focus is still putting Moroccan music on the map.
OTH: How do you want to be remembered through your work in both activism, modelling, everything?
H: I think the main goal is that I really want to stand as an example for Hijabi women and how they can be multifaceted. Because like I said, in the current political climate, we’re often misportrayed as being one dimensional. You’re just looked at as a girl who’s covering up. I really want my projects to show that I exist, that I have multiple hobbies and I can mix them all together. I don’t limit myself. But also at the same time, if I speak of everything I do in general, I just want to be the best at all of it. I don’t want to half ass the projects I do, so I can follow that idea like I said that it’s possible to do as many projects at the same time and be the best at everything. But putting it all together, I just want to be remembered for representation. I just want to be remembered as that first Hijabi that opened the door for other Hijabis to do anything they want.
OTH: And where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
H: I don’t really have a plan that far forward. I want to be doing what I’m doing now but maybe on a bigger scale. I want to continue to bring awareness to the situation of young North African and Muslim youths in Montreal through the content that I post.