Representation vs. Exploitation? Halima Aden’s ‘Sports Illustrated’ Hijab And Burkini Spread Sparks Debate Around Racial Capitalism

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Originally published as a feature for BET Style.

On May 8, the 2019 issue of Sport Illustrated’s Annual Swimsuit Edition will hit newsstands everywhere, featuring a watershed moment— the first Muslim hijabi, a Black Somali-American woman, to be featured as a model, clad in illuminating burkinis in Watamu Beach, a day’s travel from the Kakuma refugee camp where she spent the earliest years of her life.

In the announcement of Halima Aden’s upcoming photos, editor MJ Day emphasized how SI Swimsuit reflected the progressiveness of the fashion industry and society at large:

“We both know that women are so often perceived to be one way or one thing based on how they look or what they wear. Whether you feel your most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY.”

It’s a curious statement, considering that it frames the discussion around litigating the attractiveness of being fully covered as opposed to the inherent Islamophobia that can come with being visibly present in hijab or burkini. It also comes less than a month after fellow Somali hijabi and Minnesota resident Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who herself lobbied to allow hijabs in Congress, came under direct fire from the president of the United States, who used his Twitter account to spread a doctored video implying that Rep. Omar was dismissive of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers to a following of over 60 million accounts, directly leading to an increase in death threats made against her.

Therein lies the walking balancing act that has played out in the public sphere: fashion brands as high end as Gucci and Versace to the Gap and H&M have made a recent and large pivot to embrace modest culture in U.S. markets, and to significant returns — the positive impact of the inclusion of a long-ignored demographic comes with access to a rapidly increasing portion of spending power in an industry where brick and mortar revenue is under threat, to the tune of $170 billion. But while that representation is happening, the climate for Muslims in America remains stagnant, with Muslims still subject to surveillance, proposed travel bans and various forms of tacit Islamophobia enmeshed in American social norms.

This dialogue is not new to the industry — Sports Illustrated faced similar discourse when Ashley Graham received the Swimsuit Edition cover in 2016, raising the debate as to the goals and objectives of plus-size inclusion in the fashion industry and how it fit into body-positivity movements and helped tackle fatphobia as a whole. A term that University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong coined, racial capitalism speaks to the overall trend of corporations commodifying identity to attain social and economic value, which can ultimately lead to feelings of exploitation absent feeling like there is any space to express their own agency.

From Aden’s perspective, she has been hands on with trying to ensure that all of her campaigns go hand in hand with highlighting the issues she champions, which is, as she told writer Najma Sharif for a profile in Paper Magazine, “encourag[ing] girls to dream big.” That objective has carried through to her Sports Illustrated shoot, with this statement she gave to BET exclusively:

“Being featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue will have such a great impact on women and young girls who have never seen someone who look like them represented in the public eye. SI Swimsuit has been at the forefront of changing the narrative and conversation on social issues and preconceived notions. I’m hoping this specific feature will open doors up for my Somali community, Muslim community, refugee community and any other community that can relate to being different.

“This feature is proving that a fully covered hijab-wearing model can confidently stand alongside a beautiful woman in a revealing bikini and together they can celebrate one another, cheer each other on, and champion each other’s successes. It’s also putting the burkini on the map, which is imperative for young Muslim girls.”


I’m happy to see Halima book the jobs that she wants and what that might mean for other Muslim women and people who have never seen a girl in a burkini before. It still makes me question the motives of these brands that are suddenly so interested in their representation stats in 2019.

Ultimately, can the impact of representation supersede the corporatization of identity? Perhaps not completely, but at the very least it should maximize its impact by allowing the hijabis selected to champion their respective brands as free of a platform as possible to speak on the areas specific to their identity, beyond fashion representation, without censorship, until rhetoric around these campaigns will have reached beyond the notches of having accomplished all of these firsts.

While a brand can send out a congratulatory statement about them recognizing their first hijabi for her undeniable skill and talent as a model, a Muslim woman may be trying to wear that same burkini someplace far away from the glaring lights of a photographers’ lens — and in today’s society, that is still a much more precarious choice than it should have any business being.

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