How first burkini in SI swimsuit edition is shaping gender debate

Why We Wrote This

Depictions of Islam in the media are often stereotypical. Is a burkini-clad Muslim model in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue another case of that, or an opportunity to understand the range of views on gender in the religion?

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Model and former refugee Halima Aden poses during a shoot in New York City in 2017. Ms. Aden is breaking boundaries as the first hijab- and burkini-wearing model on the pages of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

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Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition is not where people typically go looking for modesty. But this year the magazine features a fully clothed Muslim model.

Though her inclusion helps break down stereotypes of Muslims as a monolithic group, followers of the faith and Western feminists are divided over the merits of the move. To some, the swimsuit worn by the model, a burkini, transmutes traditional garments into a welcome form of individual expression. Others believe the magazine is helping to normalize a body-covering garment that they associate with restricting the rights of women. Still others wonder whether the images of the burkini – in the context of a magazine designed to titillate – advance or hinder the Muslim ideal of modesty.

“This photoshoot will function as a Rorschach test, as all Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, will see their own identities and politics reflected in how they interpret the images,” says Perin Gurel, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. “If you are inclined to think Islam is oppressive, you will continue to think so; if you believe it is not oppressive, you will also find your view confirmed by this model’s choice.”

For decades, the swimsuits in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue have been receding from view. Ever since Cheryl Tiegs infamously wore a sheer mesh bathing suit in the 1978 edition, models have bared increasingly more skin each year. Sometimes the “bikinis” are merely illusionary body paint on naked bodies.

This time, Sports Illustrated has gone in the complete opposite direction.

Somali-American model Halima Aden, a Muslim, appears inside the magazine in a colorful hijab and a neck-to-toe neon-blue burkini. It’s intended as a bold statement.

“Whether you feel your most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY,” proclaimed SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day last week.

But in some quarters the photoshoot has sparked more controversy than the flesh-to-fabric ratio of Kate Upton’s cover photos.

Though her inclusion helps break down stereotypes of Muslims as a monolithic group, followers of the faith and Western feminists are divided over the merits of the move. To some, the swimsuit worn by the model, a burkini, transmutes traditional garments into a welcome form of individual expression. Others believe the magazine is helping to normalize a body-covering garment that they associate with restricting the rights of women. Still others wonder whether the images of the burkini – in the context of a magazine designed to titillate – advance or hinder the Muslim ideal of modesty.

“This photoshoot will function as a Rorschach test, as all Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, will see their own identities and politics reflected in how they interpret the images,” says Perin Gurel, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, who studies gender and race in popular culture. “If you are inclined to think Islam is oppressive, you will continue to think so; if you believe it is not oppressive, you will also find your view confirmed by this model’s choice.”

Professor Gurel adds that she liked Ms. Aden’s statement about the photos in which she hoped her participation will encourage more young women who dress conservatively to pick up swimming and other sports. But, the professor wryly observes, Ms. Aden doesn’t appear to be doing any athletic activity in the photographs.

Indeed, there’s about as much swimming in the swimsuit issue as there is shooting in Garden & Gun magazine.

Cynical or savvy? 

At a time when print magazines are struggling and pornography is accessible on phones, the swimsuit edition has endeavored to keep its soft-core content in the cultural conversation. In 2017, it featured a plus-size model on the cover. Last year’s issue included women with #MeToo-inspired slogans painted on their naked bodies. Feminist writer Sarah Marian Seltzer views Sports Illustrated’s Muslim photoshoot as a savvy marketing ploy.

“Intersectional feminism and diversity and tolerance are trendy and people see it as a way to be on the cutting edge of culture and make news and even reach markets,” says Ms. Seltzer, an editor for Lilith magazine. “But that being said, you can never know whether it’s 100% cynical. I think that there are also good intentions.”

As much as Ms. Seltzer welcomes a broader diversity of cultures and body types in the magazine, she says that it’s impossible to divorce images of women in swimwear from patriarchy.

Similarly, Kira Davis, a columnist for Townhall.com, sees SI’s burkini as “just another form of female objectification.” Ms. Davis recalls how her hippie, bra-burning women’s lib mother railed against sexual modesty and the belief that women had a set role and place. She worries that celebrating a burkini on a magazine cover only serves to enforce a similar conservative attitude in Muslim culture.

“It’s still a woman wearing what is acceptable, or desirable, according to certain males. So it’s still a male-driven fashion choice. I think it’s just as problematic as the woman who poses with barely anything on,” says Ms. Davis. “We’re going to normalize this as empowerment when it’s just the same kind of oppression. It’s just with more clothes not less.”

There’s also the question of whether Ms. Aden is expressing the Islamic principle of modesty – which applies to both men and women – if she appears in the sort of magazine that features bikinis made of guitar picks. Nervana Mahmoud, a prominent commentator on Muslim issues, is among those who feel Ms. Aden’s reclining poses on the beach are too provocative and immodest.

She has another objection to the photos based on personal experience. When she was growing up in Egypt, her mother wouldn’t allow her to swim because she feared they would be harassed by conservative Muslims if they did so. It was only as an adult, now living in Britain, that Ms. Mahmoud learned to swim.

“I had one lane for myself and a private swimming instructor,” she says. “Every mother with her little 3-year-old was watching me. It wasn’t pretty. But this was the price I was willing to pay.”

Ms. Mahmoud objects to the photos because she associates the burkini with a restrictive dress code enforced by what she calls ideological Islamists.

“The fact that both non-Muslims and some Muslims find the photos inappropriate represents the double bind that hijabis suffer within the grasp of Muslims’ patriarchy, and the ‘West’ neo-imperialist narratives that placed Muslim women as the poster girls of oppression against women,” writes Lailatul Fitriyah, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of theology at Notre Dame and coordinator of the Notre Dame Islamic Studies Colloquium, in an email. “No matter what they say, the critics do not see Halima Aden as an agentic self who is capable of making her own decision.”

Covered by choice

Indeed, countless Muslim women embrace the burkini and hijab as a free choice that has nothing to do with patriarchal restrictions. Western Muslims, such as Ms. Aden, are showcasing their independence. Her outfits may cover her skin and hair, but they’re a long way from the “beach burqa” style of burkini (some of which have been banned).

“This image is almost a reinvention of the hijab by American Muslim women and in a way that is very different from what the hijab was originally intended to be, which was a preservation of modesty and a kind of desexualization of women,” says Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday. “It’s almost like a cultural appropriation of a hijab in a liberated way, arguably, where you can sort of take this garment and view it as something sexy, as something that arguably is empowering.”

Many young Muslims in the West have embraced the hijab as a cultural marker. That’s exemplified by Mona Haydar’s 2017 hip-hop anthem “Hijabi,” which encourages feminist Muslims to affirm hijabs as cool. That millennial attitude is embodied in the lyric “Me and my hijabi ladies/ We was born in the eighties/ So pretty like the Euphrates/ and party like some Kuwaitis.” (The music video channels Beyoncé – but with women in headscarves in hip-hop formation.)

Other Muslims recoil at the trend. In her article “American Culture and the Liberalization of Hijab,” Butheina Hamdah expresses concern that the hijab is losing its theological essence as a religious symbol.

“This is perhaps most evident in the ‘trendy’ and ‘sexy’ ways hijab is talked about and visually portrayed,” writes Ms. Hamdah, a research fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs. “An increasingly ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ iteration of Muslim identity is emerging.”

Those individual, fashionable versions of the hijab may help transform how Westerners view Muslims. Mustafa Akyol, a senior fellow who focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity at the Cato Institute, believes that the Sports Illustrated images will help break down stereotypes of Muslims as a monolithic group. Ms. Aden’s colorful swimwear is also a reminder that the Quran’s suggestion of modest dress should be contextualized according to the era, the country, and the culture, says Mr. Akyol. Conservative Muslims still interpret that tenet in a similar way to 10th-century medieval scholars.

“I’m very much in favor of reinterpreting these laws,” says Mr. Akyol. “Conservatives may resist those reinterpretations. It’s their right to do so, but they should then preserve it for themselves but not force other Muslims to abide by their understanding.”

Ms. Mahmoud, the commentator from Britain who now swims regularly, agrees.

“I personally have no problem with the burkini, providing that those who advocate for the burkini will allow Muslim women to wear a bikini,” she says. “I should choose what I like. It’s between me and God to judge me.”

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