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Sports Illustrated Tries To Sell America On The 'Burkini' As Female Empowerment

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Sports Illustrated has released its annual swimsuit issue and declared itself “proud” to present the first Muslim model to wear a hijab and “burkini” within its pages.

The Somali-American model [Halima Aden] was born in Kenya at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, where she lived until the age of seven before moving to the United States. For her SI Swimsuit rookie spread, we couldn’t think of a more perfect place travel than her birth country, where she shot at Watamu Beach with photographer Yu Tsai.

“I keep thinking [back] to six-year-old me who, in this same country, was in a refugee camp,” Halima said during her shoot. “So to grow up to live the American dream [and] to come back to Kenya and shoot for SI in the most beautiful parts of Kenya–I don’t think that’s a story that anybody could make up.”

Aden is right about one thing - there was a time not too long ago when no one could imagine such a story. This is a nation that birthed the modern feminist movement, burned bras, sexually “liberated” the American woman and mainstreamed birth control in pursuit of that very idea and successfully shamed and marginalized Judeo-Christian culture for their standards of sexual/relational modesty. In a mere twenty years we have gone from disparaging religious restrictions on female sexuality to celebrating it from a culture that it is openly hostile to the progressive values the producers of this magazine claim to be celebrating.

Were Aden to be wearing a nun’s habit and cross on the beach and celebrating it as “progressively feminist” there would be no end to the outrage and insult. She would be called a prude and accused of sending the wrong message to women about how they should be allowed to celebrate their bodies.

That we so readily accept this message from a Muslim woman is bizarrely puzzling. 

It wasn’t that long ago that SI was regularly protested for their objectification of women with their swimsuit issue. Since that time the culture has taken a dramatic shift thanks in part to a steady, calculated marketing campaign from the entertainment industry. Sexy = powerful. Promiscuity = empowerment. The less women wore the more they were “celebrating” their bodies. 

I still believe the SI swimsuit issue is an act of objectification. Let’s be honest - speaking strictly in terms of consumerism these issues aren’t produced for women and men aren’t buying them for the in-depth exploration of the mind of a 23-year-old model. Objectification sells. 

I used to think my biggest problem with the progressive culture of sexuality was the flagrant display of the female form and the abandonment of the idea that imagination is the most influential part of sexuality. It was a gross mislabeling of “empowerment” and it has led to all kinds of confusion when it comes to our modern notions of romance and relationships.

I could not have imagined that an even bigger problem would one day present itself under the misleading flag of “religious tolerance,” a tolerance not in any way extended to the traditional Judeo-Christian communities that have long suffered ridicule at the hands of secular culture but instead aimed at one of the most sexually oppressive religious cultures on the planet.

In the same way the model in a string bikini on the cover of SI is an objectification, so is the model in a full-on “burkini.” It is a symbol of an idea that a woman’s body is unsuitable to be publicly seen, that she is an object to be covered rather that a human to be admired. In a country like America it is a huge step backwards. 

SI can put anyone they want in their magazine, wearing anything they deem marketable. Any woman can wear a burkini or a bikini or a paper sack to the beach if that’s what they want to do. More power to them.

But this objectification of a Muslim model in the pages of the one of America’s most celebrated magazines and calling it “empowerment” is a bridge too far. It’s every bit as trashy as stripping a model down to her barely-there thong and telling us that this is the new “girl power.” 

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