Halima Aden has been changing the game since 2016, when she became the first contestant in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant to wear a hijab—and made it to the semifinals. In the years since, the Somali refugee-turned-burgeoning supermodel has been lighting up runways and magazine covers alike, reinforcing the fact that modesty can be glamorous, too.
Now, Aden can add another history-making accomplishment to her already impressive portfolio. She is now the first Muslim model to wear a hijab and burkini for the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.
“We believe beauty knows no boundaries,” SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day told the magazine. “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. She is, in my opinion, one of the great beauties of our time, not only outside but inside. When we met, I was instantaneously taken by her intelligence, enthusiasm and authenticity.”
The shoot was also a full circle moment for the SI Swimsuit “rookie” and self-proclaimed “burkini babe,” who was born in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, where she lived until the age of 7 before moving to the United States with her family. It’s a narrative not dissimilar from fellow Somali-American and history-making hijab wearer Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who also spent years of her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp before immigrating to Minnesota. Now 21 years old, Aden returned to the country’s Watamu Beach with photographer Yu Tsai and the SI Swim crew.
“I keep thinking [back] to 6-year-old me who, in this same country, was in a refugee camp,” Aden told the magazine. “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.”
“Growing 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,” she told the SI Swim cameras.
“We bonded immediately over the idea of her participating in this year’s issue,” editor Day said. “We both believe the ideal of beauty is so vast and subjective. 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 message worth hearing—but perhaps the most inspiring words came from Aden herself, who captioned an Instagram announcement:
Don’t change yourself .. Change the GAME!! Ladies anything is possible!!! 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. Thank you so much @si_swimsuit & the entire team for giving me this incredible opportunity.