By Christianna Silva
Halima Aden has never been afraid of being the first.
Aden was the first woman to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, where she was a semi-finalist, and soon after became the first hijab-wearing model to sign a contract with IMG. And on April 29, Aden became the first Muslim model to wear a hijab and burkini in the history of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit magazine in honor of the issue's theme of “shattering perceptions.”
The 21-year-old Somali-American model, who calls herself a “burkini babe” in a Sports Illustrated Twitter video announcing her photoshoot, traveled to Kenya with photographer Yu Tsai, but this wasn’t her first trip to the country – she was born at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northwest Kenya, before moving to the U.S. at the age of 7.
“I keep thinking [back] to six-year-old me who, in this same country, was in a refugee camp,” Halima told SI during her shoot. “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.”
Aden was photographed in two burkinis: one by No Ka’Oi, and another by Cynthia Rowley. It’s also the first time the modest swimwear has ever been showcased in the magazine. The burkini – a swimsuit that covers most of the body except the hands, feet, and face – was originally designed by Australian Muslim designer Aheda Zanetti in 2016. It became the subject of heated debate across the world, particularly after officials in Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet, France, banned women from wearing burkinis on several public beaches; France's top administrative court overturned the ban in August of that year.
Now, Aden hopes some of that vitriol is disappearing. “What a time to be a hijabi,” she told NewNowNext, adding that she couldn’t ever “flip through a magazine” and see a person in a hijab. Now, as more hijabi models are landing work, and, women like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar are making waves in Washington, D.C., Aden is inspired to push for representation.
“We believe beauty knows no boundaries,” SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day said about Aden’s shoot. “I admire Halima, and I consider her an inspirational human for what she has decided to use her platform for and her work with Unicef as an ambassador.”
“Ladies, anything is possible,” Aden wrote on Instagram on Monday. “Being in Sports Illustrated is so much bigger than me. It’s sending a message to my community and the world that women of all different backgrounds, looks, upbringings … can stand together and be celebrated.”