In the past week, Halima Aden’s face has been everywhere, from newspapers to magazines to television here and abroad. But Aden, 19, is fitting in time to be a normal teenage girl between interviews and video shoots, arriving to the Times offices having just met with her orthodontist — she had her braces put on.
“Six years! I’m stuck with them for six years, people!” she laughs when asked how long she’ll have to wear them. She settles into her chair, fusses with her simple black hijab for a moment, then pulls out her buzzing iPhone.
Aden is the picture of the average American teen, if you disregard her sudden celebrity. On Nov. 26, Aden took the stage in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant wearing her hijab (a traditional Muslim head covering) and a burkini (a modest full-coverage swimsuit that takes its name from the burqa).
Aden was the first woman to wear a hijab and burkini in the competition, making history for the Minnesota pageant and launching herself overnight into stardom, despite not winning the competition.
But Aden said she didn’t set out to make waves when she chose her attire for her first-ever pageant — she simply wanted to see herself represented.
Born in Kakuma, a Kenyan refugee camp, Aden came to America when she was 6 years old, ultimately settling in St. Cloud. The Apollo High School graduate said although she loves St. Cloud for its diversity and large Somali population, the bullying she experienced due to her race and Muslim faith shaped her.
“When I was younger, I got bullied for wearing my hijab. I’d hear things like ‘towel-head’ and ‘rag-head’, and I know other girls experienced it too,” said Aden. “It’s very prevalent, sadly, and it’s sad not to see women like yourself celebrated. And when you do see a woman who looks like you, she’s oppressed or victimized.”
“I just wanted people to get to know me, and know that it was my choice. I was tired of the images I was seeing. I never fit that stereotype of beautiful, but when I noticed other people weren’t challenging that or representing me, I thought, it doesn’t hurt to be the first.”
After being accepted as a contestant in the pageant, Aden asked about wearing the burkini for her swimsuit portion, which caused some confusion in her household.
Halima Aden wears a hijab and gown while competing in the preliminary round of the Miss Minnesota USA pageant at the Ames Center in Burnsville on Saturday, Nov. 26. Aden, 19, was the first woman to compete while wearing a burkini, which she hopes will break barriers for other young Muslim women. (Photo: Leila Navidi, AP)
“When you say ‘bikini’ and ‘burkini,’ they sound so alike, my mom thought I wanted to wear a bikini with the hijab!” Aden laughs. “She was like, ‘I raised you better than this! Don’t change yourself for this competition!’ So when people explained to her that I’d be wearing a burkini and that it was to send out a message to other young girls, she was supportive.”
Aden said the decision to wear the hijab and burkini became even more significant and complicated after the competition was over.
“When I was first thinking about doing it, I didn’t think it would get that much attention. But after it went viral, I got a message from a young Muslim girl who said, ‘You don’t represent me.’ But the thing is, you can’t please everybody. You really can’t,” said Aden. “I hope I didn’t offend anyone by doing this, but at the same time, we’re living in a time where girls are getting their hijabs ripped off, people are banning the burqa … I think this sends a really positive message.”
On the day of the pageant in Burnesville, Aden was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed into the group of fellow competitors, including another young Somali woman with whom Aden said she is “BFFs,” having bonded during all the excitement. And when she stepped on the stage to thunderous applause and cheers, Aden says she went into her “Beyoncé mode,” loving the limelight.
“I told my mom, ‘As long as I come home without tripping or falling, I’ll come home a winner, I promise!’ ” Aden laughs, adding that her family and friends were in the crowd to support her.
“My mom was so proud! She was a little shocked when she saw the bikinis and stuff, because she’s not used to that, and some of my other relatives who are older were like, ‘Aah!’ ” Aden giggles and covers her face with her hands. “But I wanted them to see, it’s the American lifestyle. I want to embrace all sides of us. On one hand you are Minnesotan, but on the other hand, you are still Somali. It’s great to see both those worlds intermingle.”
Though Aden did not advance past the top 15 competitors, she doesn’t see her time at the pageant as a failure or a loss.
“Just entering was a big deal for me,” Aden said. “When I heard the other girls get called, I was so happy because they all deserved it. They put in so much work, so much effort into training and practicing. It was really good to celebrate them. And I want young girls to see, you’re not going to win everything you try. But you do keep trying.”
In the days since Aden’s historic story broke, her world has been a flurry of excitement and activity. She received over 2,000 friend requests on her personal Facebook in the first few hours of her viral fame, and has since maxed out her friend request limit. But not all of the attention has been positive, and Aden has some blunt words for her detractors.
“To be honest, it’s not that deep, people. It’s just a swimsuit. I’m not forcing my hijab on others, I’m not even preaching my religion; I’m literally just wearing a swimsuit that I feel comfortable in. If you think that’s so horrible and that threatens you, that’s a you issue. I’m not going to make it my problem,” she said.
Aden said her choice to wear the hijab and burkini aren’t a sign of oppression — in fact, they’re quite the opposite.
“Just the fact that I’m doing it should show you that I’m not oppressed,” said Aden. “Wearing modest clothing is a belief, and I’m not going to say that every Muslim woman is in my shoes, but the majority of us do have a choice.”
Halima Aden, 19, talks about her experience Wednesday, Nov. 30, competing and making the semifinals in Miss Minnesota USA pageant. (Photo: Jason Wachter, email@example.com)
“I find it all very ironic; what I want people to pay attention to is that there’s no way for women to win,” she continued. “I’m covered up, but I’m still getting these comments that say I shouldn’t be. But the girls who wear the bikinis, they’re being told they’re too revealing! Enough. It’s their body, their choice.”
Aden is passionate about spreading her message of acceptance for all women who feel underrepresented, something she’ll continue to do in her post-pageant world, having been invited to speak at several high schools about representation, diversity, bullying and learning to be confident with one’s self. Aden said she hopes other girls will embrace the idea of a “sisterhood.”
“I will stand up for a girl who is being harassed or bullied for choosing to wear revealing clothes,” said Aden emphatically. “I will stand up for that! I don’t agree with dress codes, having to look a certain way, or name calling, or slut shaming. I don’t agree with that. But I’d want you to stand up for me when I choose to cover myself.”
When asked if she considers herself to be a role model, Aden wrinkles her nose, then softens as she talks about her experience as a child, and the experiences of other girls like her.
“I don’t think I’m ready for all the responsibility that comes with (being a role model), but I didn’t have many role models I could relate to personally. Coming from a refugee camp, dealing with a language barrier, learning to pick myself up constantly … I didn’t have somebody who had the same struggles as me. If I could be that for another girl, I’d be so proud, and honored.”
Aden urges young Muslim girls to work to achieve their dreams, no matter the opinion of others.
“You almost have to grow a second skin,” she said. “Because people are really mean, and they’ll find every reason to tear you down. But you have to realize, whatever you’re going through, that’s going to make it easier for the next girl. … And if I can wear a hijab in a beauty pageant, you can try out for the basketball team, or be a social worker, or do whatever it is you want to do.”
Though the freshman at St. Cloud State University isn’t sure what she wants to do next, mulling over possible majors and hijab modeling contracts, Aden is content to catch up with friends and continue offering words of encouragement to girls and women of all colors, backgrounds and creeds.
And at the end of the day, Aden sees her time on the pageant stage as representative of something much larger than a glittering 15 minutes of fame.
“It’s the title, you know? Miss Minnesota. Especially when people don’t see you as Minnesotan — they see you as an outsider. But Minnesota, it’s not just one face, one background, one story. We’re a lot of things put together. We’re a melting pot.”