Sports Illustrated’s burkini model isn’t groundbreaking – it’s objectifying

Halima Aden's photoshoot reaffirms the idea that a woman's success is defined in terms of how she looks

epa07537118 (FILE) - Model Halima Aden arrives at the amfAR charity dinner during the Milan Fashion Week, in Milan, Italy, 22 September 2018 (Reissued 29 April 2019). According to reports on 29 April 2019, Somali-American model Halima Aden, 21, will become the first Sports Illustrated cover girl wearing a burkini and a hijab in the 2019 annual swimsuit issue.  EPA/MATTEO BAZZI *** Local Caption *** 54646116

Hijabi supermodel Halima Aden will be the first Muslim woman to appear in Sports Illustrated magazine's annual swimsuit issue, out this month. The magazine has said her appearance in its pages clad in a burkini, with her head covered, is "inspirational". Somali-American model Aden herself talks about "changing the game" and "feeling represented". But when it comes to objectifying women, it's the same old story.

The photoshoot is a pyrrhic victory. Merely being represented in a mainstream publication doesn’t change the game; it simply props up a sexist hierarchy because it reaffirms the idea that a woman’s success is defined in terms of how she is perceived.

Since 1964 – long before the Sun newspaper introduced the now-defunct, semi-clad page three girl feature – Sports Illustrated has published a yearly swimwear edition featuring an array of women in sultry poses, wearing very little. In recent years the magazine has tried to make itself relevant to a changing mood and a greater push towards diversity. Tyra Banks was the first black model in 1997. In 2017, so called plus-size models were featured. Last year, Sports Illustrated showed it was keeping up with the zeitgeist by painting words like "human"  and "truth" across women's bodies in an apparent response to the #MeToo movement.

The next group of women to be co-opted now in this way seems to be veiled Muslim women. For women who have faced frequent exclusion or attempts to erase them from the conversation, for women who are commonly portrayed as either oppressed, submissive, abused or terrorists, a cheerful, sunny photo op might seem like the perfect antidote to this perception.

But a system which first excludes certain groups of women not traditionally deemed beautiful, then includes them as some kind of achievement, is problematic. And when inclusion is still based on perceptions of beauty and attractiveness, that can hardly be described as some kind of female empowerment.

Many young Muslim women are cheering on Aden, a semi-finalist in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, and I understand why. Her sass, her smile, the fact she walks with her head held high, are incredibly inspiring. But for all those cheering, I have to say this: being represented is a false victory in this case. This doesn’t bring down the system; it is buying into it.

This is not to criticise Aden as a Muslim woman. We have trolls enough already. Being visible as a veiled Muslim woman today – whether in a magazine spread or just doing the school runs – is itself, in this time of heightened Islamophobia, an act of defiance.

This is about choosing which battles are worth fighting and which are the ones that actually matter.

Sports Illustrated's 23 million mostly male readers – and more than half a century of featuring women in provocative poses – are significant in the context of that conversation. While it has employed some clever marketing tools over the years, it is naive to think that such a publication has seen the light overnight.

The hijab and the burkini were supposed to be ways for women to prevent their looks and bodies being objectified. Instead, featuring them alongside skimpily clad models means they are now seen as the final frontier where no voyeur has gone before. A feeble attempt to tackle misogyny in a publication that is inherently sexist has been sacrificed at the altar of diversity.

Of course, diversity and representation are important goals but they have to work hand in hand with the fight against misogyny. All that has been achieved is that black, Muslim and African women are being objectified equally, which is no prize at all.

Don’t take my word for it. According to the magazine issue’s editor, MJ Day, it has “one of the biggest and broadest samplings of beauty” ever featured. Ugh.

Women are not things. We are not inanimate objects to be viewed in order to elicit a favourable response based on our looks. There shouldn’t even be a swimsuit edition. If “beauty knows no boundaries”, as Day says, then perhaps it’s time to set some new ones.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World