Halima Aden, an American-Somali model who has made headlines with her hijab in the Western fashion world, has most recently been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the first woman wearing a “burkini” or hijab in the magazine’s 65 year long history. Leaving aside the topic of Halima Aden’s career as a fashion model being celebrated and praised, instead I would like to focus on the troubling issue of using her hijab in Sports Illustrated as some kind of groundbreaking achievement in the world of women’s rights.
This is in no way blaming the model herself, nor criticizing the freedom of women who do wear hijab to express themselves through different mediums, but instead pointing towards a more underlying issue: magazines like Sports Illustrated are using the hijab, something that has been demonized in much of Western media, to emphasize that if the hijab is finally to be accepted and “celebrated” in Western media, it can only be done through outlets like Sports Illustrated and not through the women who wear it themselves in their own spaces.
Women who wear hijab in the mosques, women who wear hijab in schools, and women who wear hijab outside of flashy and patriarchal magazines have not been accepted and celebrated, so why is there so much celebration now that Sports Illustrated is involved? Can the hijab not be accepted for what it is without Sports Illustrated or Playboy to help prop it up?
Playboy’s feature with Noor Tagouri, a groundbreaking journalist in her own right, has the same underlying issue as Sports Illustrated. This is in no way discrediting Noor Tagouri, and although we can celebrate any recognition as a step towards a wider recognition of women who do wear hijab, we cannot deny that Playboy simply used the hijab as a means to promote its own branding as well as to showcase the hijab as being “accepted” only when celebrated by something as westernized as Playboy magazine (read our Chief Editor Salim Kassam’s take on the Playboy issue from the time it happened here, where he addresses this very issue about the problem with supporting new “initiatives” from magazines like Playboy).
This type of colonialist mentality, in where something “foreign” such as the hijab cannot be celebrated on its own but only through mediums like Sports Illustrated, Playboy, and other Western-approved platforms, is both deeply troubling and extremely harmful to the women who do wear hijab but aren’t carefully featured and promoted on glossy magazines.
The hijab has never been about fitting into a definable mold, or about impressing general society. It has never been about appeasing the masses or being accepted by those in power. The hijab is arguably the exact opposite. It is about standing up to the status quo, about declaring your own power, and about being brave enough to proclaim to the world that yes, you are Muslim. And the most beautiful thing about hijab is that it has a different meaning and reasoning behind it to every single Muslim on earth.
Why should we then fall into the trap of believing that being featured in Sports Illustrated or Playboy magazine is the end goal or monumental achievement that all hijabi women were waiting for? When have we ever needed the approval or support by a questionable magazine like this to finally be recognized in our own right? With Sports Illustrated’s long history of actively objectifying and demeaning women, why are we celebrating this magazine now just because they have plastered a hijab over its pages?
Living in the West can be difficult for women who do wear the visible hijab. We’re often forced to feel like we have to compromise to fit in, and to show to everyone how “normal” we are to feel accepted in general society. But why do we have to feel the need to compromise our values on hijab? Why do we have to be featured in Sports Illustrated or Playboy magazine to finally be celebrated? Why should our beautiful individuality and freedom of expression be defined by how well we integrate into Western society through mediums like those magazines that have for decades been questionable in their own right towards the treatment of women? Can we not be celebrated for who we are just by being who we are in our everyday lives?
This over-obsession of hijabi models in magazines like Sports Illustrated or Playboy is forcing many to believe that this should be the aspiration for all; and that we can only be seen as “normal” or “accepted” through these such mediums. But this cannot be the case, and we should not let ourselves be carried away in thinking that we must be accepted by magazines like these to be considered worth celebrating.
We shouldn’t measure our worth in comparison to how well received we are from capitalist media outlets who for so long have cared so little about the marginalized or oppressed. Let’s instead measure our worth with our own hands, our own voices, and our own standards. Only then can we really truly celebrate the beauty of hijab.