The photoshoot is sparking discussion in the Muslim community, but the model seems unphased.
Halima Aden is the first Muslim model to wear a hijab and burkini on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine’s swimsuit edition.
For the 2019 issue, which was released this month, Aden modeled a number of burkinis, including a custom-designed, color-blocked burkini by American designer Cynthia Rowley.
The shoot took place in Kenya, which holds significance to Aden’s story. The Somali-American model was born in Kenya at the Kakuma Refugee Camp. At the time her family was living in a tent as they were fleeing the horrors of the Somali civil war.
In each camp her family was transported to, hunger and malaria were common. During this period, her family made the best of life, making furniture from mud. It wasn’t until she was 7 that her family finally moved to the US.
“I keep thinking [back] to six-year-old me who, in this same country, was in a refugee camp,” Halima said during her photoshoot. “So to grow up to live the American dream [and] to come back to Kenya and shoot for SI in the most beautiful parts of Kenya–I don’t think that’s a story that anybody could make up.”
At the age of 19, Halima became the first woman to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, where she was a semi-finalist. She later became the first hijabi model signed with IMG models, which manages Gigi and Bella Hadid. Aden gained international success, landing on the cover of British Vogue, appearing in Carine Roitfeld’s CR Fashion Book, and walking on New York Fashion Week runways.
“It’s so overwhelming, but in the most beautiful way,” Aden said. “Just three years ago, there was not a single [signed] hijab-wearing model.”
According to Sports Illustrated editor MJ Day, there was a message behind having Aden in the shoot: “We bonded immediately over the idea of her participating in this year’s issue. We both believe the ideal of beauty is so vast and subjective. We both know that women are so often perceived to be one way or one thing based on how they look or what they wear. Whether you feel you’re most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY.”
Despite the positive motives that made the ground-breaking fashion statement a reality, many people are put off by the new issue, including women from the Muslim community.
“While all representation is (generally speaking) good, not all representation is equal,” writes Sarah Shaffi for London’s Stylist magazine. “A quick glance through the brand’s Twitter feed shows image after image of women with perfect bodies in small swimsuits. Where is this purported ‘vast’ ideal of beauty?”
Shaffi congratulated Aden but also recalled the controversy around the burkini, “The burkini has, unfortunately, gone from a personal sartorial choice to a politicized item of clothing in recent years.”
In response to MJ’s exclamation that women who choose to wear the burkini are “worthy,” Shaffi said, “The sentiment is nice, but underlying it is the idea that Muslim women need to be told they’re worthy by non-Muslims. Why are people not willing to accept the word of the Muslim women who choose to wear the burkini instead?”
Shaffi writes that the “congratulatory tone over [Aden’s] Sports Illustrated cover makes me uncomfortable…It’s annoying, to put it simply, that it’s taken a magazine that largely caters to Western, white audiences to show the world that the burkini is acceptable.”
Muslim reformer Shireen Qudosi tweeted a reply to Sports Illustrated: “Good for Halima. More nonsense for the larger debate. If you’re going to wear the hijab and cover your skin —whether you think our religion calls for it or you want modesty — it is completely counterintuitive to strike a sexy pose in a magazine known for objectifying women.”
While neither Qudosi or Shaffi targeted Aden in their remarks, some are indeed attacking the model for her cutting-edge spread. Regarding those individuals, “There are people that think I shouldn’t be [in the magazine] and there are people that think I’m not representing [Islam] in the right way,” Aden said. “So I’m getting it from both sides.”
Western men have also had plenty to say about the issue. One man tweeted, “Those garments are not trendy fashion statements. They are actual tools of patriarchal oppression and in many countries women can be stoned to death for refusing to wear them. But yeah that Sports Illustrated burkini is so wonderful and fun!”
Aaron David Lewis, a comics scholar focusing on literary theory and religious studies, said, “…the awful mag Sports Illustrated is trying to up its feminist/cultural cred by featuring a model in a burkini and hijab for the first time. Does this call for a #NancyPelosi style clapback?”
The writer David Hansard tweeted, “Women, celebrate your oppression.”
Aden appears unbothered by the backlash from men. “My choice, my decision to do the things that I’ve done has nothing to do with you boys and everything to do with us,” Aden said.
“You don’t know what it’s like to experience being kicked out of a pool or banned from a beach for wearing a burkini. I want girls to see, no matter what sometimes you are going to get backlash from your own community. But you shouldn’t let that bother you. And really, the fact that in 2019 a swimsuit creates this much attention…I mean, why are women still being judged for what they wear?”
Aden mentioned that, due to the controversy surrounding the burkini, many Muslim women often struggle with maintaining their virtue of modesty at the beach and therefore choose not to swim at all. She had a more personal message for these women: “Girls—join swimming!” Aden said.
“You don’t have to wear a bikini if you don’t want to wear a bikini. Wear a burkini if you want to be a part of it. I wanted to show girls that they had an option. A lot of girls opt out of swimming because they don’t think they have one.”