Halima Aden: From Refugee to 'Sports Illustrated' Burkini Sensation - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Halima Aden: From Refugee to 'Sports Illustrated' Burkini Sensation

Halima Aden: From Refugee to 'Sports Illustrated' Burkini Sensation

By Eugene S. Robinson

Halima Aden walks the runway during the Tommy Hilfiger TOMMYNOW Spring 2019 show.
SourcePeter White/Getty


Because she’s reclaiming the female form.

By Eugene S. Robinson

OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.

When you see model Halima Aden, everything you had heard that might have confused you before you saw her suddenly makes sense.

You see, Aden, on first blush, is a 21-year-old former semi-finalist in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant. This, in and of itself, is not especially noteworthy in an age that feels well beyond these types of contests.

But add in the fact that Aden is Somali-American, immigrating here when she was a kid from a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, and things are a little more interesting. Mix in her scoring a gig in the also almost-past-it 2019 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and you have a pretty cool hand. Until the final card is played, and you see that she’s done so in a hijab and full-coverage burkini because she is Muslim, and boom — you have a royal flush of genius.

Aden represents a new kind of sexy cool. A hijab and burkini kind of sexy cool.

“This could have come off like clumsy, politically safe posturing,” says Mick Edwards, former style editor for Code magazine. “Because for years models of color have worked within rules and aesthetics established by others. But outside of the ascent of Winnie Harlow and Alex Wex, well, Aden is just central casting perfection. So it works.” That look has fueled Aden’s national attention and gotten her signed to IMG Models, a management firm with offices in London, Los Angeles, Milan, Paris and Sydney. Because, without a doubt, Aden has oodles of “It” any way you want to measure it — whether it’s Q score (the appeal measurement) or your own eyes. 

On a continuum that’s seen stumbles from Playboy magazine discontinuing then reinstating nudes, or Victoria’s Secret’s well-publicized problems with inclusion, Aden represents a new kind of sexy cool. A hijab and burkini kind of sexy cool.

And because the earmark of cool is effortlessness, watching Aden loll around in the surf in the Sports Illustrated shoot like so many past issues’ models, but doing so draped in multicolored cloths and fabrics, returns the focus to what first and most often attracts us: the face. And in an act of zeitgeist-appropriateness, it also returns ownership of the female form to the female in question.


“I had no interest in fashion,” Aden told Glamour magazine in 2017. “[B]ut it’s always been something that interests me — finding new ways to be fashionable and cute but still being modest.”

As a kid, she quit choir rather than suffer the indignity of having her family and friends not show up, because that kind of music was frowned upon in her Islamic community. The high school homecoming queen took a chance on competing in pageants, wearing a burkini because it’s how she felt most comfortable.

The look went viral, drawing plenty of praise but also criticism from those who viewed the covering as oppressive. “Just the fact that I’m doing it should show you that I’m not oppressed,” she told her hometown St. Cloud Times in 2016.

Now she gets advice from supermodel Gigi Hadid on how to walk the catwalk and is hitting Italy for Milan Fashion Week. Aden has managed to move beyond her housekeeping job at St. Cloud Hospital and into a three-year contract run that would be heady even if you weren’t a college student, which she is. She’s also a Unicef ambassador with plans to return to Kakuma, Kenya, to work with refugee children like she once was. 

“I admire Halima, and I consider her an inspirational human for what she has decided to use her platform for,” said Sports Illustrated swimsuit editor MJ Day in a statement announcing the spread on Monday. Besides, “we believe beauty knows no boundaries.” So, yes, we could be seeing a carefully crafted but contrived statement about race, religion, culture, gender and beauty, since according to Newsweek, the Islamic women fashion sector weighs in at about $44 billion a year.

Or it’s a product of a genuine corporate belief in acknowledging and promoting the notion that there are many threads in our social fabric. One thing is aggressively clear: Aden is both beautiful and delightful. They are not necessarily connected since it’s clear her being beautiful is not why she’s delightful, and she’s not delightful because she’s beautiful.

Aden seems, above all else, sincere, with a clear and obvious enthusiasm for being in a position to live her best life.

“When people who we feel are not deserving get that which we feel they don’t deserve, we feel a certain dismay,” Edwards says. “But Halima seems to say, ‘Not only am I not going to compromise my look. I’m not going to surrender my culture and faith to some outdated occidental demand.’” Which is the key to precisely how Aden feels well-served by fate. Despite lots of old-school reasons the fashion industry and Madison Avenue advertisers might have nixed her whole deal even 10 years earlier, right here and now, Aden feels perfect for the moment that’s both chosen her and that she has chosen.

“My luck has been so good,” Aden told Glamour in a burst of modesty. “But … I don’t want people to think I’m the perfect Muslim. I never signed up for that … And I mean, there’s no such thing as a perfect Muslim. We are all human.”

We’re all human, yes, but there’s only one Halima Aden. 

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories