Halima Aden knows she’ll stand out at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant — and that’s the point.
While other contestants don revealing bikinis during the swimsuit portion of the competition this weekend, she will cover her body from neck to wrist to ankle. Aden, a 19-year-old Somali-American, will wear a colorful headscarf and show only her face.
She will be the first fully covered Muslim woman to compete in the state pageant. She entered intent on breaking barriers for Muslim women, to counter the negative image that they are oppressed.
“The hijab is a symbol that we wear on our heads, but I want people to know that it is my choice. I’m doing it because I want to do it,” said Aden, a freshman at St. Cloud State University. “I wanted people to see that you could still be really cute and modest at the same time.”
But admittance into the two-day competition, which begins Saturday at Burnsville’s Ames Center, does not come without a cost. The pageant has caused a rift between Aden and her mother, as well as some Somali community members who do not support her bid for Miss Minnesota USA.
Social media sites sharing news coverage of her participation were flooded with comments calling her choice to model “haram,” or forbidden by Islamic law. Encouraging relatives took screenshots of the positive messages congratulating her determination, which Aden said kept her going.
The backlash was surprising for Aden, who made it clear to supporters and strangers alike that she would not be compromising her religious principles of modesty to compete. After contacting pageant officials, Aden was approved to wear a chaste, two-piece “burkini” during the swimsuit segment — judged on the woman’s self-confidence, physical fitness, poise and grace, among other factors.
“We often tell the ladies that the swimwear competition is really won from the neck up,” said Libby Watkins, assistant director of the pageant. “The Miss Universe Organization, and the state pageant producers, always do our best to make it possible for the contestants to stay true to their upbringing and diverse backgrounds.”
Denise Wallace, executive co-director of Miss Minnesota USA, said the inclusive event supports Aden’s right to wear whatever she feels most comfortable in because the pageant empowers “women to be confidently beautiful.”
Aden is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. She said she was the first Somali-American to participate in student government in college and later crowned the first Muslim homecoming queen at St. Cloud’s Apollo High School.
“You don’t let being the first to do it stop you or get in the way,” said Aden, who dreams of becoming a U.N. ambassador one day. “When I see that there hasn’t already been somebody, I take that as a challenge for me to give it a try.”
Lizeth Diaz Rodriguez, Aden’s childhood friend, said she always looked up to Aden for speaking her mind and committing to whatever she set her sights on.
After receiving mailings for the competition, the women joked about entering. But then Aden actually did, with no expectation that she’d be chosen to compete on stage. Rodriguez said her friend will certainly stand out under the bright lights on stage.
“That’s the point,” Rodriguez said. “She’s not like everybody else.”
Aden’s deeply religious mother, however, is troubled by her participation. Her mother, who declined to be identified for privacy reasons, said she would rather see her daughter focused on school.
But to Aden, their disagreement is an example of the growing divide between mother and daughter since the family moved to Minnesota 12 years ago. Aden was just 7 years old when the family left Kakuma, a Kenyan refugee camp where she was born.
They eventually settled in Waite Park, a suburb of St. Cloud, where Aden’s mother put an emphasis on her three children’s education rather than social events.
Less than three days before the competition, Aden sought her skeptical mother’s approval. She hadn’t yet forbade the competition, but said she did not plan to attend.
Aden collected her burkini from a friend’s place — she hadn’t kept any pageant garments in her mother’s apartment — and went home to try it on for her. Aden hoped that seeing how modest the outfit was would quell her mother’s fears.
As Aden pranced back and forth in the living room, her mother sat and scowled. She did not approve. “The top is too short,” her mother said. “This outfit is revealing.”
The dress reached just above Aden’s knees, revealing pants underneath. The swimsuit-like material, she said, exposed her figure.
Distraught, Aden sat at the edge of their black leather couch arguing that the suit was purchased from a Muslim-approved website.
“We do come from two different generations. I feel like we’re a little bit more Americanized than our parents are,” Aden said. “She doesn’t understand it because it’s not something that exists back home.”
When asked if competing as Miss Somalia would have made the process less of a hassle, Aden said no.
“I am Minnesotan,” she said. “I want to represent my state.”
Without time to order another swimsuit, her only options were to pair the outfit with a skirt for additional modesty or withdraw from the competition altogether. She chose the pageant and hitched a ride to the mall.