Halima Aden, the 21-year-old Somali-American Muslim model, has made history by becoming the first model to wear a hijab and a burkini in the 2019 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. “This is literally a dream come true, I can’t even tell you how this feels,” Aden said enthusiastically in behind-the-scenes footage describing her experience shooting for the magazine on Watuma Beach in Kenya.
“Growing up in the States, I never really felt represented because I could never flip through a magazine and see a girl who was wearing a hijab,” the young Somali-American lamented. Now, as an emerging international supermodel, Aden is slowly challenging beauty stereotypes in the fashion industry.
From Kenya to Minnesota
Aden was born in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. At the age of seven, her family moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where they created a new life. Ever since, Aden’s vivacious personality and persistence have allowed her to become a trailblazer in the U.S. and around the world.
As a senior at Apollo Senior High School in St. Cloud, Aden became the first Muslim to be crowned homecoming queen, which emboldened her to persist in pursuing her goals. In her freshman year at St. Cloud State University, Aden participated in the 2016 Miss Minnesota pageant, becoming the first contestant to wear a hijab and a burkini in the pageant’s history.
Although Aden did not win, she did reach the semifinals. The pageant was not just about winning for the young Somali-American, it was about inspiring more people to be “open-minded and accepting” and dispel the narrative that Muslim women are oppressed. Growing up being bullied for her hijab, she wanted to show her free will and pride in her religion and culture.
In the eyes of young Muslim girls and women struggling to fit in, Aden became an inspiration by standing out. “There are so many Muslim women that feel like they don’t fit society’s standard of beauty,” she told CNN at the time. “I just wanted to tell them it’s OK to be different, being different is beautiful, too.”
From One First to the Next
Aden later went on to sign with IMG models, a prominent global agency, which launched her career as a successful international model. Since then, she has continued to make headlines while expanding the traditional definition of beauty.
Aden appeared on the cover of Allure in July 2017, as the first hijab-wearing model to be featured on the cover of a major U.S. magazine. The following year, in April 2018, the young model broke new ground yet again when she became the first hijabi woman to be featured on the cover of British Vogue. In March, Aden and two other black hijabi models (Swedish-born Ikram Abdi Omar and Danish-born Amina Adan) graced the cover of Vogue Arabia for the magazine’s first group hijabi cover.
Last summer, Aden became a UNICEF Ambassador to engage American youth in the organization’s mission of protecting and supporting children globally. Aden understands the pivotal work that international organizations do to advocate for the rights of children, as she was once a recipient of this help herself.
Despite her challenging beginnings, Aden has always refused to shy away from a challenge and is now using her influence to encourage other hijabi women to be trailblazers for a new generation of young Muslim girls.
“Young girls who wear a hijab should have women they look up to in any and every industry. . . . We are now seeing politicians, business women, television reporters, and other successful hijabi women in visible roles and that is the message we need to be sending,” Aden told the BBC.
Setting a New Standard for Oppression
However, as in the case of Hulu’s recent series, “Ramy,” starring Egyptian-American-Muslim standup comedian Ramy Youssef, Aden’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit feature is receiving mixed reviews. Some have characterized Aden’s decision to appear in a burkini as hypocritical and a move that undermines the long struggle of the feminist movement.
Sports Illustrated has objectified women on its covers for decades. Although the publication claims to be “an American sports magazine read by millions,” it is no secret that its racy cover images target a predominantly male readership. The magazine’s annual swimsuit issue, filled with women in sexualized poses in revealing swimwear, is a big favorite among that demographic.
“Aden is a great role model for Muslim and non-Muslim women, but the congratulatory tone over her Sports Illustrated cover makes me uncomfortable,” Sarah Shaffi told Stylist magazine.
Aden in Sports Illustrated
While Aden looked beautiful in the vibrant and creatively designed burkini ensembles that she donned in the photos, her sensual poses and expressions are contrary to Islamic values and the modesty that the hijab is supposed to embody. In addition to sexually objectifying women in skimpy swimwear, Sports Illustrated has seemingly succeeded in objectifying fully clad religious women.
MJ Day, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s editor, said she believes the “ideal of beauty is vast and subjective.” But even if the magazine’s misogynistic overtones could be disregarded, it would take more than the representation of one woman in a burkini in the magazine to prove any genuine commitment to portraying diverse kinds of beauty. There is another dimension to this issue that has been overlooked but is equally as important.
The Politics of the Burkini
Australian-based Aheda Zanetti invented the burkini in 2004 to give conservative Muslim women the freedom to do sports and swim comfortably. Since then, however, the burkini has become a politicized item of clothing in the West, especially in France. The controversy over the Islamic swimwear reached its peak in the summer of 2016 when various cities, beginning with Cannes, banned the burkini and arrested or fined women who disobeyed the interdiction.
Although French courts later ruled the ban unconstitutional, many people still consider the Islamic swimwear to be “un-French.” In fact, Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister at the time, claimed that the burkini contradicted French values. Globally, the burkini is often labeled as an oppressive item of clothing—like other wear associated with conservative Muslim women, even though the hijab predates Islam—and for many, a woman cannot be liberated and wear the burkini at the same time.
Nevertheless, for over a decade, millions of Muslim women have chosen to wear the burkini, even though many have never accepted or celebrated their choice. Aden’s appearance in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue may make the item of clothing more palatable to global audiences, or at least make it more mainstream. But, perhaps a magazine with a reputation for perpetuating the sexual objectification of women should not be involved in the process of shifting the narrative of the burkini at all.
Hijabi women do not need anyone’s approval, especially for choices that they have made of their own volition. All they need is the world to listen and accept the decisions they make. They do not need to be celebrated by Western or mainstream media outlets, but they should be respected.
Real Diversity or Token Minority Representation?
In recent years, the desirability of having racial and gender diversity in various professions and industries has gained traction. But what does diversity really embody? Is superficial or token representation of minorities and women enough? Does integrating minorities and women into oppressive institutions signify “empowerment?” These are just some of the important minority representation questions that need answers.
Minorities, and women, are often critical about their portrayal in the media because such narratives so often misrepresent and demonize them and their beliefs. Until more minorities challenge and mold those negative accounts, enduring change will not occur.
Perhaps “representation” is not the right word when talking about diversity; maybe “presentation” is more accurate. While “representation” might imply that Aden, or any woman or minority for that matter, is acting and speaking on someone else’s behalf, “presentation” merely suggests that she is sharing her own reality.
Not every minority celebrity or influencer can, or should, bear the weight of representing an entire community. But, Aden can and should be able to present her own narrative to the world. Not every marginalized voice that is amplified in our global community will represent every individual, and not every means with which a minority individual chooses to “represent” his or her minority will please his or her respective community.
Yet, admittance into certain social, economic, and political institutions is worth the struggle, if only to initiate systemic change from the inside out. Although publishing images of hijabi women on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine may not be the first choice of many feminists for challenging gender discrimination or overturning discriminatory stereotypes of “beauty,” nevertheless it has opened up a debate over where individuals choose to champion their causes and fight their battles.