IIn Swahili, “Kakuma” means nowhere. It is also the name of a small East African town in Kenya, where one can come across the Kakuma refugee camp. “Home” to thousands of refugees, this place and the camp have now been propelled into the orbit of international recognition and fame. And the woman who’s helped shape this journey of a people and its history from “nowhere” to somewhere big is Halima Aden, the first Muslim model to appear in Sports Illustrated magazine’s Swimsuit edition, wearing a hijab and a burkini.
Aden, born at the Kakuma camp, has been a global model of repute already. What is remarkable is the significance of her sartorial choice and tenacity with which she has stuck to it. Hijabs, burkinis or any other item of clothing, where the head or parts of the female body are covered — something that supposedly conforms to notions of modesty in Islam according to many religious authorities — have not been the most popular dress code in many countries. The niqab (full veil that covers the face) is banned in France and Belgium, Austria and Denmark, for instance. After the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka has also banned the niqab. In the context of such steady strangling of personal value systems, even within democratic spaces, this move by Sports Illustrated seems exceptional. In the glitzy world of international modelling, the grime of racism and stereotypes is often ignored, at best. By putting Aden on the cover, the magazine has taken a step towards “normalising” a visual that our society — buffeted by negative cultural biases — is wont to find “conservative”, and even regressive.
That SI operates within a market economy driven by business sense, not merely a moral compass, needs mention. “Muslim fashion”, after all, is an industry worth billions. However, in a world where nothing — not even the monies — seems enough incentive to trump cultural otherisation, perhaps a fashion spread might be an eye-opener.