Halima Aden has become the first Muslim woman in a burkini to make the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. While representation is good, we should be cautious about celebrating the magazine too much, says Sarah Shaffi.
Who would have thought a woman born in a refugee camp could one day be one of the most celebrated models in the world?
Halimah Aden, the inspirational model in question, probably didn’t realise just how ground-breaking just doing her job would be.
Aden grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya before moving the US aged six. She was the first contestant to wear a hijab and a burkini when competing in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant and was the first hijab-wearing model to be signed to IMG Models – the agency that represents Kate Moss, the Hadid sisters and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, among others.
And now she’s achieved another first, making history as the first Muslim model to wear a hijab and burkini in Sports Illustrated, appearing in the 2019 swimsuit edition of the magazine.
Photographed in a range of brightly coloured and patterned swimwear and with a wide smile of her face, Aden looks beautiful. In an interview to promote the issue, the model said the opportunity was “literally a dream come true”. She continued: “Growing up in the States, I never really felt represented because I could never flip through a magazine and see a girl wearing a hijab.”
Although I don’t wear a hijab, I can relate. I never saw girls who looked like me in the magazines I consumed growing up, or in the adverts for clothing targeted at me. Muslim girls were only noticeable by their complete absence in fashion. So I’ve found great comfort in watching the fashion industry become more inclusive in recent years. I can now see models from a range of backgrounds, including Muslim models like Aden and Shahira Yusuf, who is Somali-British, on the covers of magazines or in adverts for major global brands, and being able to walk into a high street shop and find “modest” clothing without struggling has been a joy I cannot even begin to describe.
But while all representation is (generally speaking) good, not all representation is equal.
Aden is a great role model for Muslim and non-Muslim women, but the congratulatory tone over her Sports Illustrated cover makes me uncomfortable, for two reasons.
First, Sports Illustrated has for decades been objectifying women on its covers. Sure, it describes itself as an American sports magazine read by millions, but it is undeniably most famous for its annual swimsuit issue, on the covers of which models pose in (usually) tiny swimming costumes.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s editor, MJ Day, has said she believes the “ideal of beauty is vast and subjective”, but it will take more than the inclusion of Aden to show me that the company is serious about this. 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?
Past cover stars include Kate Upton, Lily Aldridge, Irina Shayk and Chrissy Teigen, and there’s no doubting that all of them – and the models who have appeared within the pages of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit – looked gorgeous. But the way the covers are geared towards the male gaze is what’s disturbing about them, not what the women are wearing. They all look amazing, and I’m a big advocate for women being able to wear whatever they want without criticism.
Which brings to me to my second point. Women should be allowed to wear whatever they like, whether that’s dresses with the shoulders cut out (which I’ll never understand but each to their own), bikinis or, indeed burkinis.
The burkini was originally designed by Aheda Zanetti, an Australian, and covers the whole body except the face, hands and feet. Crucially it’s made of material you can swim in, meaning Muslim women who want to cover their bodies while they swim or visit the beach no longer have to resort to oversized t-shirts and leggings which soak up water and become heavy. There are many types and designs of burkini – I own a bright pink burkini dress (which I wear over sports leggings), although I choose not to pull the hood up when I use it.
The burkini has, unfortunately, gone from a personal sartorial choice to a politicised item of clothing in recent years. The furore over it reached a peak in the summer of 2016, when many towns and cities in France, starting with Cannes, banned the burkini and arrested or fined those it deemed to have broken the bans. Although the ban was later ruled unconstitutional, that didn’t stop the Prime Minister of France at the time, Maneul Valls, from saying it contradicted French values. Geneva made moves to ban the burkini in swimming pools at the end of 2017, with Germany and Austria also exploring the idea. Remember, this is a piece of clothing we’re talking about here, not an assault weapon.
Commentary about the burkini on social media, dominated by non-Muslims, has often labelled it an oppressive form of clothing, giving no truck to the fact that a woman might want to choose what she’s wearing. No, when it comes to the burkini, the only women who wear it are forced to do so by backwards-thinking, controlling men. Any woman who is liberated – according to the standards of the west – wouldn’t wear a burkini.
Until now, and Sports Illustrated. And therein lies my problem. When Muslim women were choosing to wear the burkini, it was seen as eccentric as best and dangerous at worst (Cannes’ mayor said that the burkini ban was needed to avoid “trouble to public order”). But now that Sports Illustrated has put the burkini on its front cover, it’s suddenly seen as acceptable, and the number of congratulatory tweets and news articles about the decision is almost overwhelming.
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. Day said: “Whether you feel your most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY.”
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? Why is it implied that we should think of ourselves are less-than until someone else tells us we aren’t? That’s not a sentiment I’m willing to entertain; regardless of whether I’m wearing a shalwar kameez, a jumpsuit or a burkini, I don’t need the explicit approval of anyone else to think I’m worthy.