Think ‘Miss USA’ and you probably think of a Miss Congeniality-style parade of sparkly women with big smiles, big hair, and a vague desire for ‘world peace’.
But Halima Aden is determined to change that. The 19-year-old Somali-American from St. Cloud, Minnesota has become the first woman to wear a hijab and a burkini in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant – and is committed to challenging Islamophobia in America.
The pageant took place over the weekend, with the results announced on Sunday night. Aden reached the semi-finals wearing a hijab, and appeared on stage in a burkini during the obligatory bathing suit competition.
The St. Cloud State University student, who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, told ABC that winning the competition wasn’t her top priority. Instead, she entered the pageant in order to combat racist stereotyping of Muslims.
“The people that are doing bad things, they don’t represent an entire group,” Aden said. “I feel like I’m here to bust those misconceptions and stereotypes of Muslim women.”
She added that she saw her role in the pageant as a way of offering an alternative to Western beauty ideals.
“A lot of people will look at you and will fail to see your beauty because you’re covered up and they’re not used to it. So growing up, I just had to work on my people skills and give people a chance to really know me besides the clothing,” she said in an interview with KARE-11.
Speaking to MPR News, she added: “This pageant is so much more than just beauty. [The] whole message [of Miss Minnesota USA] is being confidently beautiful, so I didn’t think that I should allow my hijab to get in the way of me participating… Just because I’ve never seen a woman wearing a burkini [in a pageant] it doesn’t mean I don’t have to be the first.”
Donald Trump was frequently and unapologetically Islamophobic during his presidential campaign, often failing to draw any real distinction between radical Islamic extremism and ordinary Muslims. Since his election victory three weeks ago, many Muslim women have posted on social media about their fear of wearing the hijab in public.
Aden said that she didn’t enter the Miss USA pageant specifically to challenge Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, but added that she thinks it is vitally important to positively represent the American Muslim community.
“What I wanted to do was to just give people a different perspective,” she told MPR. “We just needed one more thing to unify us. This is a small act, but I feel like having the title of Miss Minnesota USA when you are Somali-American, when you are a Muslim woman, I think that would open up people’s eyes.”
Minnesota voted for Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential election, and there are between 950 and 1,900 Somali-Americans in St. Cloud – with around 200 new refugees, mostly from Somalia, resettled there every year. However, the vast majority of St. Cloud residents are white and of German Catholic heritage, and many Somali-Americans have found it to be a “particularly close-knit and insular” environment, according to USA Today.
“St. Cloud has not been good at welcoming religious diversity,” Minnesota historian Annette Atkins told the magazine.
Earlier this year, St. Cloud was the focus of international attention when a 20-year-old Somali Muslim man, Dahir Adan, attacked 10 people with a knife at the Crossroads Center mall. He was killed by an off-duty police officer at the scene. Although Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, no evidence was initially found connecting Adan to the terror group.
Main image: Instagram/Halima Aden