It seemed only fitting that Halima Aden was the first contestant to introduce herself to the audience. Many of the cameras were there for her, after all.
The 19-year-old Somali-American sauntered on stage during the Miss Minnesota USA pageant Saturday night in a “burkini,” a bathing suit covering her from neck to wrist to ankle. She was the first fully covered Muslim to compete in the state pageant, where she made it to the semifinal round of 15 Sunday, but didn’t advance to the final five.
“Halima is bilingual. She speaks fluent English and Somali, and history is her favorite subject,” Denise Wallace, pageant executive co-director, announced to huge applause as Aden strutted for the judges. “She’s making history tonight.”
Aden’s swimsuit stood in sharp contrast with the other 44 women, most of whom donned revealing bikinis during the pageant’s signature swimwear segment.
Aden, who wore a headscarf with the suit, said she entered the competition at Burnsville’s Ames Center to break barriers for Muslim women and counter the prevalent notion that they are oppressed. She hoped to be a role model for girls who felt that wearing the hijab might hold them back.
“I just want to go on as myself,” said Aden, a freshman at St. Cloud State University. “When you have a lot of women in our state that do wear the hijab, we should be able to see that everywhere.”
Before the contest she reassured Somali community members, some of whom were anxious about the idea of her modeling, that she would not compromise her religious principles to compete. Organizers quickly approved Aden’s decision to wear the burkini.
A fan club of friends and family cheered both nights, beaming with pride for how Aden represented her community. “We’re so proud of her,” said Aden’s cousin, Khaled Said. “She’s helping connect other generations.”
The group included Aden’s biggest inspiration, her mother, Rukia — who moved the family to Minnesota from a Kenyan refugee camp 12 years ago, when Aden was 7.
Rukia Aden previously declined to comment on Halima’s participation. She hadn’t originally planned to attend the pageant, but relatives said they convinced her to go after explaining what the scholarship contest was all about.
“I support my daughter,” said Rukia Aden. “This was something new to me. I’m very happy to live in the United States where people are free and can wear what they want.”
“It was her choice and I’m happy with what she chose,” Rukia Aden said.
After the pageant, Halima Aden said she’s gotten thank-yous from parents and young girls who have been bullied.
“That’s made me so proud to be a part of this,” she said. “Just give it a try. You might not win, but maybe the fifth, sixth girl will win. Don’t let anything get in the way.”
Meridith Gould, 22, of Minneapolis, was crowned 2017 Miss Minnesota USA. She will compete at the televised Miss USA pageant in 2017.