Halima Aden, 19, was the first hijabi to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant in late November and made it all the way to the semifinals. For the swimsuit portion, she wore a “burkini.” The Islamic Monthly talked to this trendsetter about what drove her to do something no hijabi has done before, beauty in the modern world and how reactions to her hijab as well as the pageant itself inspired her next mission in life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
The Islamic Monthly: You just recently competed in a beauty pageant. It would be really interesting to have a conversation with you talking about this idea of pushing beyond the headlines and looking into the symbolism of the inherent dichotomy of a hijab-wearing woman in a Minnesota beauty pageant. But first, can you tell us the process of how you made it into the semifinals in the beauty pageant? What was the story leading up to it?
Halima Aden: When I applied, I didn’t think it was going to be this big. So I sent in an application with a picture and why I wanted to participate. And then, the pageant directors reached back out to me saying, “Congratulations! You are a contestant.” After that, I just got into the phase of getting ready for the pageant. It was a two-day event, and I found out on the 27th that I made it to the semifinals.
So what was the process of applying? Did you have to submit photos, write essays, do interviews? What was that process like?
I would say it was pretty simple. It’s online, so you fill out a little bio, how old you are, that information, and a short little description of why you want to do it and just a little bit about yourself. And you submit in a headshot, but it doesn’t have to be a professional photo, just a regular photo.
Once you did that, how long was the time between you applying and them telling you that you got in?
I think it was in the span of, I want to say a month or a few months. There was some time between the application being sent and them reaching back out to us.
How did you find out about the pageant? Is it something you’ve been paying attention to over the last few years? Did you get a flier? How did you actually encounter the application process?
For a long time, I realized that we weren’t, as Muslim women, being represented. I was like 8 or 9, a teacher of mine gave us an assignment to go home and to draw a Disney princess that looks like us. And to come back and talk about that. The teacher had a good intentions, but I just had nobody to talk about, I had nobody to draw, I had nobody that looks like me that I could connect with like that. All of the other girls in my class had other Disney princesses that they resembled. So I was about 8 years old when I realized that, “Wow. There aren’t that many people that I could relate to, at least that I see everyday, in the media.”
After that, I started paying more close attention to seeing magazines and not seeing, again, women dressed like me. As I got older, when I started seeing women dressed like me, they were either oppressed or victimized, I just didn’t like that negative connotation that came with the symbol and image of a Muslim woman being depicted on television.
When you did apply, did you talk to anyone, did you consult with anyone, or did you make the decision and then receive the news that you were accepted? What was that like? How did you bring people in who, in some ways, kind of feel the same way that you do, into this decision-making process?
I talked to one of my close friends about it before I applied, and I didn’t honestly think I would get accepted to do it only because I wasn’t sure I was allowed to wear a different swimsuit, or even allowed to wear a hijab. I went in thinking, “OK, you gotta try to send the application out,” but I wasn’t sure if I was going to get accepted or not. And even without the hijab, not every girl is accepted into the pageant. So I was thinking maybe they already have 45 contestants. So I didn’t want to start telling everybody about it before I got accepted, but it was after I got the congratulations that I told everyone about it.
And did they know in the application process about you wearing the hijab and that in the swimsuit competition, you were going to be fully covered?
I didn’t specifically say that in my application, but I figured with my picture, me wearing a hijab, I thought that would be enough. I didn’t think I had to specify.
Once you got there, how was the pageant staff and the other contestants, how did they treat you? Did you feel out of place? Or did you feel as embraced as you were in the process of being accepted from the beginning? What was that like?
At first, I just felt like it was weird for me because it was my first time, and I was alone. And I kind of second-guessed myself. And I’m like OK maybe I shouldn’t be here. But as soon as I met the other girls, as soon as I met the other staff, they were really welcoming and it even shocked me how inclusive everyone was and how supportive the other girls were. Some of them were keeping up with my story. So having that conversation and just being welcomed in, it just made the whole experience that much better.
Several years ago, I did an extensive interview with Rima Fakih, who won Miss USA in 2010. In some ways, somewhat similar story in that she came from an immigrant family to this country, also a war-torn country, worked hard to establish herself and her life here, and believed that her and her values and who she was could somehow be represented.
You obviously went into this beauty pageant fully clothed. Rima had participated in the pageant based on the guidelines and the rules that were set. But regardless of that, when we talked about it and had conversations about it, she had mentioned that there was love and hate from both sides, from both Muslims and non-Muslims. And I’m suspecting there may have been a lot of supporters, but there also could have been a lot of criticism. Could you give me a sense of what you experienced before, during and after the pageant, and when this became national or global news afterward on how Muslims reacted to your competing.
I did get a lot of support from other Muslims, and even non-Muslims. But of course there was some criticism that I received. Some people thought that what I was doing was forbidden in the religion, and some people didn’t like the way I was representing other Muslims. It was a little confusing because I did go in with the intention, and I was thinking we’re living in a time when women are being attacked and assaulted, and hijabs are being ripped off people’s heads. All that’s happened with the burkini and it being banned in different places around the world. It makes sense that I would do this right now because I feel like it’s needed now more than ever to represent hijab and burkini.
So it was a little heartbreaking and devastating to hear that from my fellow Muslims, but it’s also a little shocking because the religion frowns upon backbiting and bullying. You know some of the comments weren’t even said directly to me, they were just in the comments sections and family members sent them to me. And it’s just like wow. I could judge you but I’m not gonna do that because I have to worry about my own sins and I have to worry about bettering myself as a Muslim. So I’m not going to worry about the things that you’re doing. But it was just kind of ironic that they’re pointing fingers, and they’re not even seeing the stuff that they’re typing is negative.
Are some of these critics people you know personally or within the community? Or are they just the trolls that exist in this invisible internet space that we all sort of operate in?
No. Before I entered, a lot of people in my own community, the Somali community, were saying, “Oh, she’s going to wear a bikini. There’s no way she’s going to wear hijab.” So I did receive that criticism, people thinking I was lying about wearing what I was going to wear. But afterward, it was like “Oh congratulations! We’re actually happy that you did this.” So that was from the Somali community that I personally know.
But with the trolls, the interesting thing is girls who didn’t even have their hair covered were criticizing me about the way I was dressed. As a woman who wears the hijab, I know what it’s like to be bullied. So I know the hardships that could come from wearing this, so it’s important for me to stand up to this.
You talked about the burkini and I think that’s pretty significant. In some ways it seems like your entry into the pageant couldn’t have been more timely. This is the year that the burkini was a big topic around the world, a huge conversation point. It was banned from many resorts globally. Was any of that part of what propelled you to compete in a burkini and in this beauty pageant?
Yeah. I think that has a part in why I did it. Definitely just seeing the news. It’s sad because women, it doesn’t matter how less or how much that you wear, you should be free to wear whatever you wanna wear. So it’s sad to me that women are being told they can’t wear the clothes that make them feel comfortable. So that’s part of the reason I wanted to do this because I wanted to send a message you can do whatever you want, whatever that makes you comfortable. You shouldn’t be judged or mocked for it.
I find it interesting you had just stated that some of the people within your community before you competed, but when they heard that you were going to compete in this, were afraid you were going to take your hijab off and be in a bikini. It was almost as if, even within the Muslim community, they can’t understand that you could be a trendsetter in a place that in some ways no one has ever navigated before, which is to be a fully clothed woman in a bikini competition.
Again, it’s a lot of people just don’t understand that, just because you haven’t seen a different perspective, it doesn’t mean that it can’t exist. And that’s again, something I want to challenge everybody. Don’t just accept things all the time. It’s OK to sometimes go out and be different and we should celebrate differences.
Again, it’s not even the Muslim women, my target audience was really just all women basically, because I see time and time again the misconception that you have to dress half naked to be considered beautiful. And if you want to do that, that’s perfectly fine. But just know that, that’s not always the case. You could wear something that’s modest and you could still be really stylish and really trendy and really cute.
It’s almost this dichotomy that exists in this event and the fact that you competed in this event. You as a fully covered woman, fully clothed in a swimsuit competition, I think it’s really reflective of you and your life as well, that being that in some ways, you’re this American Muslim and Somali descending from an immigrant family. I think it’s in some ways kind of dichotomous too. In what ways could you go into an arena and explain that you could be American and Muslim and also from a Somali family in this day and age. In the same way you could be a fully clothed woman in a swimsuit competition. Do you often think about the parallels of this dichotomy, what you did is in many ways reflective and representative of you as a human and as an American.
A lot of people they think of a certain group when they think of the word “American” and I just think we’ve come so far, we shouldn’t have any image come to our mind when we’re thinking of the word “American,” because American be a million, it could be so many different images. It’s unfair to say one group is more American than another group. And yes I am first generation, yes I am a refugee, yes my parents weren’t born here, I wasn’t born here. But I’m still as much of an American as anybody else. And for a long time, I know a lot of people can relate to this, I feel as young Muslim Americans, we kind of do struggle with identity, because on one hand you are Muslim and you have to uphold your religious beliefs, and not to lose yourself. And then I’m still Somali so I’m trying to maintain my Somali culture but also, but also I need to embrace my American culture because this is a side of me, this is what makes me.
Could you give us a sense of what it’s like to be a Somali American and how that in some ways led you to the decision of wanting to compete in this competition? What part of you do you think allowed for that sort of heritage and that culture and that background of yours? And the story of your family fleeing from a war-torn country, coming to this country as refugees, how was that representative of you on the stage?
A lot of people that I personally know, there’s a stigma that surrounds being a refugee. So a lot of people I know will say “Oh no, I’m from so and so.” They’ll leave out the refugee part because of that stigma. So my thing is, it doesn’t matter where you start, all that matters is where you finish. So don’t ever be ashamed to say where you’re from. I’m never gonna be ashamed to say I’m from a war stricken country or a place that’s known for poverty. And I’m not going to be afraid to say I am a refugee and I was born in a refugee camp and I came here as a refugee. That is something that has made me the person that I am today and little things like technology, food, shelter, stuff like that, I feel like we all sometimes take for granted.
I’ll try to stay humble and not forget that side because I do remember being a 6-year-old in a refugee camp and seeing my mother struggle day and night just to keep food on the table and just protect us and get us to this country so we could have education and a future to look up to.
Stuff like that, it just kinda shapes you because I feel like I have a purpose in life and my purpose is to make a difference in America, because, again, there’s that misconception that hunger is just a global issue. We’re not having hunger and poverty in our backyards in America, because this is America. That’s not true. There are millions of people who are struggling in this country. So I feel like being a refugee and being from basically three different countries, I have three countries that I need to give back to.
Do you find that other Somali Americans are trying to find their way in America, maybe not being received as open you would hope? Where are you finding those questions of identity amongst your peers?
It’s hard, I can honestly say. It is very difficult because you’re gonna have people in your community that are going to criticize you. “Oh, you’re trying to be Americanized. You’re forgetting who you are.” But again, America was founded on differences. It’s immigrants that have made this country great, to be honest. I feel like it’s a battle of staying true to who you are, but also not embracing to do things that not a lot of Americans would do. I know a lot of girls growing up, and they don’t want to do sports because that was frowned upon because of the athletic gear that schools provided them with.
So my challenge is, again, you don’t have to look at that basketball team, and be like, “OK, I can’t be a part of it because of the clothes that everyone else is making.” Challenge yourself. Go out and find a design. There are so many different platforms right now, especially online. You can find athletic wear that’s created for Muslim women. So don’t let things like uniform stop you from going out and doing things, like basketball or volleyball.
What about womanhood? Even in America, women who have been Americans for generations, and this is all they know, these women who maybe look different from what the standard norm is in the fashion industry or has been for a very long time, have also struggled. We see women who are not the very very slim women that we know of, that are on the magazine covers, in the pages of magazines we often read. Black women have often struggled, as have other Asian Americans, etc. etc. Can you reflect on this idea of what you did as a covered woman on a stage that in some ways sort of set the trends of what it is to be beautiful in this country and some ways very cookie cutter, perceived to be a certain way, therefore being beautiful because you are that way. How do you think you being a woman in hijab challenged the perceptions about beauty and those standards? And is that what compelled you to want to do this in particular?
Yeah. It’s very sad when we do have a picture or a person come to mind when we think of what is beauty. And it’s not because I don’t feel like a lot of women are being recognized for their beauty. And it’s also sad that we’re not being judged based on intelligence or character or personality, but based on looks. So me being covered up and me still getting to the semifinals I think had a lot to do with personality and character. And again, that’s just challenging our society and what we find to be the norm.
So my challenge to other women is if you don’t see yourself represented, go out and represent yourself, basically. Because that’s gonna start a chain reaction; more women are going to start doing that and then we’re gonna see a melting pot. So we’re not just going to have one person to represent what beauty is. But we’re gonna have multiple, all different backgrounds, all different nationalities, all different races to represent what beauty is. I think that’s beautiful, because every little girl deserves to look up and find somebody she can connect with. Somebody that looks like her.
Really, I don’t want just one figure or one size or one race or demographic representing what beauty is because it’s so broad. So we should just have it where everybody is represented. And again, we have to keep challenging these definitions of beauty by talking to the younger generation. I personally have so many little girls in my family, and I try to remind them everyday that they’re beautiful and just because their blonde-hair, blue-eyed best friends are beautiful, it doesn’t mean that they’re not. So it’s important to recognize everybody.
As a Muslim woman, in what ways do you tie this into your practice of the religion and how you represent who you are as a Muslim?
A lot of people think that just because you’re a Muslim woman, you can’t be beautiful. And I don’t know where it says that in our religion because really beauty is something you cannot cover. It just shines through, it radiates. So us women, as Muslim women, we need to recognize inner beauty is actually what’s more important than the outside. But don’t let that get in the way of you being confident and comfortable in your own skin.
Did you receive any criticism from outside the Muslim community? Islamophobes, or people who think you are too much of a challenge to the standards of how things are, the status quo, so to speak.
Yeah. What’s interesting is, it’s kind of funny to see the many excuses people will make and create to demonstrate their hate for you. My mom used to tell me, if someone wants to hate, they will find a billion reasons. But there is no reason to love. Love is unreasonable. You just do it.
I was compared to the KKK. They’re like, if she’s allowed to wear her hijab, so would a KKK be allowed to wear their costume and headgear. Just ridiculous things. This is part of my religion, this is the stuff that makes me feel comfortable. It was really sad to see me being compared to the KKK, because I’ve never done anything, not even 1% of the stuff that has come from that group.
And then other people were like why is she wearing the symbol of oppression, how unfair is that to the women in the Middle East. And just people putting the weight of the world on my shoulders. [They would ask questions like] what would she say to the girls who are being forced to wear this? I’m like, I’m 19 first of all, and second of all, I am representing freedom of choice. Nobody should be made to do anything; nobody should be forced to wear anything they don’t want to wear. And the beauty of America is that you do have the freedom of religion.
So I want to spread that message of choice, I will support my sisters who don’t wear the hijab just as much as I support the women who do.
What’s next for you?
I think if anything, those hateful comments, really mean comments, have inspired me even more to go out and to represent Muslim women and just represent immigrants and first-generation Americans even more. I feel like being a Black Somali Muslim woman in America in 2016, it has shown to be a little bit of a challenge to find the acceptance. And my goal is to make life easier for women who do have the same challenges as I do.
I just want to spread the message of being inclusive, especially to those who are different than we are. I know it’s different and something to get used to. But I look at my group of friends, and they’re all from different backgrounds and it has educated me so much more about the world, and it’s so much more interesting to learn about different parts of the world through your friend than it is to Google it or see it on TV.