Halima Aden, a Somali American and Muslim model, is the first woman to pose in a burkini for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, which hits newsstands Wednesday.
“Growing up in the States, I never really felt represented because I never could flip through a magazine and see a girl who was wearing a hijab,” Aden says in a video for Sports Illustrated, as she models several colorful head-to-toe swimwear designs. “Don’t be afraid to be the first.”
Aden, who was born to Somali parents in the Kakuma refugee camp in northeastern Kenya and moved to the U.S. at 6, returned to her birth country for her photo shoot on Kenya’s Watamu Beach.
It’s not her first time modeling in modest swimwear. She competed as the first burkini-clad pageant contestant for the Miss Minnesota USA pageant in 2016, where she was a semifinalist.
The swimwear shoot has earned the model praise from social media users and public figures such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, who congratulated her on Twitter: “As my fellow Minnesotan and Somali refugee, I am so proud of you for working to get here and to propel the conversation forward.”
But some have critiqued her decision to pose for Sports Illustrated.
Others have questioned where magazines like Sports Illustrated fit into the larger conversations around burkinis and modest fashion.
“The burkini has, unfortunately, gone from a personal sartorial choice to a politicized item of clothing in recent years,” writes Sarah Shaffi for London’s Stylist magazine. 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.”
Here’s a closer look at the swimsuit that continues to spark worldwide debate:
What is a burkini?
“Burkini” is a portmanteau of bikini and burqa — a long, loose outer garment that some Muslim women wear to the beach or the pool. They’re basically full-body swimsuits that cover everything but the face, hands and feet. Some women also wear the garment as activewear.
Lebanese Australian Aheda Zanetti is credited with inventing the burkini in 2004 to accommodate a hijab-wearing niece who wanted to play sports. She’s even trademarked the name. Zanetti’s designs aren’t the only option — lots and lots of brands based around the world now make burkinis.
For the Sports Illustrated shoot, Aden modeled several burkinis, including an all-black design with beading by the luxury activewear brand No Ka’Oi and a custom-designed, color-blocked burkini by American designer Cynthia Rowley.
Why wear a burkini?
Many practicing Muslim women follow the Quran‘s call to “cover and be modest” in dress. Zanetti has said she designed the burkini so that Muslim women who want to dress modestly could partake in the active Australian (and beach-focused) lifestyle, and comfortably surf, swim or just lounge by the beach.
Others wear burkinis to protect their skin from UV damage, or simply because they feel more comfortable when they’re covered.
Cities have considered banning them
In 2016, a number of cities in France were debating banning the burkini, arguing that the body-covering swimwear wasn’t in line with France’s secular views. France’s highest court ultimately ruled in 2016 that a burkini ban was unconstitutional.
The city of Geneva banned burkinis in 2017.
But the burkini has its defenders in Europe. In 2018, a school in Germany purchased burkinis for students to wear in swim class. Some lawmakers protested. But a government minister supported the school’s decision.
And this spring, the town of Ghent, Belgium, ruled that two public pools that had banned burkinis — and all public pools in Ghent and the neighboring community of Merelbeke — should allow women to wear the garment.
Modest swimwear has a long history
Western swimwear has evolved dramatically over the centuries — in the 1800s, suits covered most of the female bather’s body. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jewish women have strikingly similar swimwear. As for the burkini — and do-it-yourself variations — they’re part of the beach scene in India and North Africa.
Maanvi Singh is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to NPR. Contact her @maanvisings