History was made this weekend when attendees at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant witnessed an unexpected sight during the swimsuit competition: a fully clothed woman.
Halima Aden, a Somali-American who is a freshman at St. Cloud State University, became the first Muslim woman to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant while wearing a hijab and other modest clothing that kept her fully covered. While most of her fellow contestants strutted their stuff in bikinis during the swimsuit portion, Ms. Aden donned a "burkini," a type of full-body swimming outfit.
"I just want to go on as myself," Aden, who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, told The Minneapolis Star Tribune. "When you have a lot of women in our state that do wear the hijab, we should be able to see that everywhere."
The pageant, in which Aden placed in the top 15 contestants, comes weeks after the FBI reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslim-Americans in 2015. Researchers have attributed the surge in part to the rhetoric of now-President-elect Donald Trump, who during his campaign called for a ban on immigration by foreign Muslims and a national registry of Muslims in the United States.
But Aden said she didn't have Mr. Trump in mind when she entered Miss Minnesota USA competition.
"What I wanted to do was to just give people a different perspective," she told Minnesota Public Radio. "We just needed one more thing to unify us. This is a small act, but I feel like having the title of Miss Minnesota USA when you are a Somali-American, when you are a Muslim woman, I think that would open up people's eyes."
Organizers of Miss Minnesota USA pointed to Aden as an example of how the pageant industry, which has long been accused of objectifying women and promoting outdated standards of beauty, has become more inclusive.
"The organization continues to evolve as women evolve," said Denise Wallace, the director of Miss Minnesota USA and Miss Minnesota Teen USA, to ABC-7 News, adding that the Miss Universe organization is "proud to be the forefront of the diversity of beauty."
The burkini has been a subject of controversy in itself in 2016. The debate over the burkini – described by former French head of state Nicolas Sarkozy as "a political act, a militant act, a provocation" in the form of a swimsuit – came to a head in August, as France's highest administrative court ruled that towns did not have the right to ban the modest swimwear.
Meanwhile, some fashion designers have begun to embrace the burkini not as a political statement, but as a modest alternative form of swimwear that may eventually be worn by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
"Like the bikini, the burkini will take time to become natural for people to wear, because it is a fairly new concept to many people," Vanessa Lourenco, who started designing burkinis for her Paris boutique MadammeBK in 2012, told The Christian Science Monitor in August. "I feel that designers of the bikini were the ones in control of making the new fashion become ordinary and the same will happen with the designers of the burkini. Because in the end, it is just a new type of fashion."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.