Twenty-one-year-old Halima Aden is the first woman to be featured in Sports Illustrated wearing a burkini and a hijab (see below). Plenty of Muslim women, other than myself, were not amused with Sports Illustrated for several reasons. There are few glaring problems with this.
First, let it be said that these observations are not an attack on Halima Aden. Halima is free to do what she wants and build her career however she pleases. However, traditional and progressive Muslim women both hope she has someone advising her in the future about how to navigate the many choices and opportunities that will continue to come her way.
Once again, the futility of the relative term “modest” is exposed. Images like these directly contradict the purpose & spirit of the hijab, to hide our beauty & free us from the poisonous objectification of outlets like Sports Illustrated. This is not representation of Islam. https://t.co/PbWv5cECtH
— Aisha (@shariahaisha) April 29, 2019
InshaAllah sister Halima has someone to advise her about this.
I conducted a workshop on this topic yesterday; seeing the insecurities & struggles young girls/teenagers are facing as a result of this kind of imagery produced by fellow Muslim women is depressing
— Aisha (@shariahaisha) April 29, 2019
The first problem is that this is not feminism.
One of the bedrock principles of feminism is that women don’t exist to gratify men with whom they don’t have relationships. At least in part, this is one of the reasons women choose to wear hijabs and burkinis. There are boundaries of intimacy and sanctity rooted in the idea that women are to be cherished, respected and protected versus being overexposed.
Posing in a magazine catering to the male gaze, to female objectification, to indulging in a culture of wanton sexual indulgence that treats women like an a la carte menu, is neither a feminist statement nor is it an Islamic one.
The second problem is it confuses identity politics with culture.
While Halima Aden appearing in a Sports Illustrated issue donning a hijab and burkini does expand the traditional definitions of beauty, it does something else too — namely, dragging in a few other things under the assumption of diversity and broader spectrums of beauty.
Firstly, it creates a distorted, oversimplified version of culture and aesthetics. The same day the Sports Illustrated spread hit the stands, I stumbled upon this beautiful photograph of a woman of color immersed in water in a similar pose. There’s a stark and obvious contrast between photography as art (below) in more exposed clothing that still honors and respects the female form and that Sports Illustrated photograph. It is my personal opinion that applause of pop-culture garbage is a further deterioration of civilization, its ethics and values.
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This is what beauty, art & non-objectification looks like in similar setting and pose. Anyone who thinks @sportsillustrated w/ @halima is a cultural statement needs to unplug from the matrix. As a Muslim woman or any woman, do whatever you want. Leave religion out of it, please. #modestswimwear #burkini #modestywear #hijab #modestymovement
The third problem is a distortion of faith.
A distortion of faith is what happens in cases like this where cultural touchstones like media and business don’t understand faith and identity. It’s what happens when they refuse to listen to broader Muslim voices, while near consistently pushing forth a singular interpretation of Islam as the totality of faith.
That doesn’t help anyone, least of all other Muslims.
Are the Hijab and Burkini Islamic?
When what’s flashy or noisy is mainstreamed as Islam, it detracts from our collective ability to have an honest conversation. And yet, because we’re not able to have the honest conversation on a larger scale, the same tired talking points and questions keep resurfacing.
In the case of the hijab (the head covering), we know that women in pre-Islamic cultures covered their hair, too. It’s assumed that 1,400 years ago the tradition was copied by the newest branch of the monotheistic faith. It’s also been proposed that, historically, Muslim women began covering their hair to distinguish themselves from slave women. Whether a hijab is actually called for in the Quran is up for debate.
As for the burkini, there’s nothing Islamic about it. We first had this conversation in 2016 when France’s top court overturned the burkini ban. The entire debate is misleadingly framed around religious rights. Religion has nothing to do with it. It was about the right for women to be modest. Yet, just as with the yoga pant debate, most will agree there isn’t much left to the imagination when a woman wears a burkini (this is certainly borne out by the Sports Illustrated photo).
Teasing out the threads of religion and doctrine aside, the fact is that regardless of what the origin of hijab is or whether burkinis fall under some religious mandate, devout Muslims find the image to be distasteful. We agree Halima has the right to wear and pose as she chooses, but we are not impressed by it either.
I challenge @SInow and the “@nytimes to dare to show this photo to any Muslim scholar.
Halima Aden’s hijab and #Burkini may get a round of applause from the politically correct western elite, but devout Muslim will find it provactive and un-modest. https://t.co/BUT9G3U91N pic.twitter.com/gr2eEXkhlX
— Nervana Mahmoud (@Nervana_1) April 30, 2019
Why Does the Sports Illustrated Cover Matter?
News of the Sports Illustrated feature arrived within a week of the Poway Synagogue shooting as well as an attack on pedestrians in Northern California who were believed to be Muslim and news that a terror plot was thwarted in Los Angeles.
While Aden herself and her career are neither connected to nor have a responsibility toward the larger conversation on radicalization, we do have to look at cultural drivers in play.
Two things happen when caricaturized Muslims are plucked and platformed as symbols of diversity, as is how I believe Halima is tokenized, particularly in this photo:
- The life, struggles, and faith of everyday Muslims is further pushed beyond the fray of human understanding.
There is very little space left in the public attention for real Muslim issues. Instead that space and spotlight is given over to amateur hour, where stories are infantilized and romanticized. The feeling for me as a Muslim is that we’re treated with applause while immersed in shallow waters (like the Sports Illustrated cover).
As a Muslim, I feel like this is a modern interpretation of the “noble savage,” the other, the oddity, a spectacle to marvel at. It’s a little glitter thrown over the issues so some groups of people can feel good about themselves while capitalizing on it.
- Those who feel alienated and silenced will also be pushed further to the fringe, where they remain unengaged and where they grow with hate and resentment.
People aren’t blind, and Muslims aren’t the only ones seeing the intense focus on avoiding real and meaningful debates on identity, faith and belonging. The inevitable backlash against alienating these folks is that it breeds greater hate, animosity and violence against Muslims.
Who is Halima Aden?
Fashion model Halima Aden was the first woman to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant, where she came in as a semi-finalist. She’s was signed onto IMG Models despite being just 5’5″ tall and has since sky-rocketed into a career, pairing her charismatic personality and striking beauty with the identity politics of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman. Since then, she’s been on the cover of British and Arabian Vogue, along with being a featured model in Kanye West’s runway shows.
Aden shares a background similar to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Born in a Kenyan refugee camp, Aden and her Somali family moved to the United States when she was just six-years-old. Aden is part of the Minnesota Somali community. That community has, unfortunately, most recently (and once again) made it is as a finalist as one of America’s most radicalized communities. According to the FBI, Minnesota suffers from one of the highest rate of terror recruitment.
While I wish Halima well, I hope that as she further matures and gains life experience, she returns to some of the fundamental issues that drive the American Muslim experience beyond just being the hijabi model. As women, we are more than just what we wear or what we look like.