The other contestants in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant wore revealing swimsuits.
She came out in a burkini — head-to-toe swimwear — and a hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering.
Halima Aden, a 19-year-old Muslim from St. Cloud, Minn., wanted to compete on her terms. She wasn't sure how the pageant would react to her request to wear a burkini. "I prepared myself to hear 'no,' " she says. "But I was hoping they'd say 'yes.' So when they did allow me to wear a burkini, I was so thrilled."
Aden's family is originally from Somalia. She was born in the Kenyan refugee camp of Kakuma, where her parents had fled in the 1990s, and came to the U.S. when she was 6. She made it to the top 15 semifinals in the beauty pageant — and made history. No one in the Minnesota contest had competed in a burkini and a hijab.
Her pageant bid drew worldwide support — and criticism as well. We spoke with Aden about her decision to dress according to her Muslim values.
How did it feel to wear a burkini with all the other contestants dressed in revealing swimsuits?
I thought this was the perfect time to represent myself as a Muslim woman and encourage other girls to live their life with conviction and not to be scared. To represent a population where women do dress like that especially with all that's happened [banning the burkini in towns in France] and so many girls feeling scared to wear their hijab.
What was the reaction when you walked onstage in your burkini?
I was literally blown away, when I had all the cheering. I was like, "Work it!" I felt so confident. I've never been that comfortable ever in my life.
Have you heard from people in Somalia or Kenya about your pageant experience?
One girl from Kakuma messaged me and said, "I'm so proud of you for living your truth and sharing your truth with the world." And that makes me not ashamed to be from Kakuma. Because a lot of people won't mention the fact that they were born in a refugee camp because there is some kind of stigma attached to it.
Any reaction from family members?
All my relatives in Somalia are like, "We don't know what pageants are but congratulations."
What was it like growing up in a refugee camp?
When you're a kid, to be honest, you could be in the worst situation ever but you're still going to have ways to enjoy it. I didn't really notice the poverty and I didn't notice all the obstacles and challenges my mother was going through. But it was very rough.
And I will never take for granted school or my freedom here or the privilege to just be a kid and not have to worry about where your next meal is going to be.
I know I got to do something that's one in a million, to escape a refugee camp, to come to this country and have so many doors open for me. So I want to go back and make a difference and give motivation or hope to all the kids that never got to leave or have the privilege that I did. I think hope is the biggest thing that anyone can receive. Just to tell them, "Hey, I've been through this, and I've had a lot of adversities, but don't ever let adversity stop you from getting ahead."
What are your career aspirations?
Having the background that I do, I want to be a U.N. ambassador one day. As long as there are children who are starving and living in [a] poverty-stricken home, nobody should feel calm enough to do things that benefit only themselves. It's important to remember all the millions of people that are starving.
What did you learn about yourself from competing in a pageant?
I learned that when you stand up for what you believe in, you'll get a lot of support. But there are always going to be negative things said about you. I was so shocked to see adults who are old enough to be my grandparents really just upset about me wearing a burkini, and I was so confused because that's just the clothes that I feel most comfortable in. I don't know why that's a threat to anybody.
What kind of negative things did you hear?
People in general were saying, "Why should we change our rules to accommodate you; why can't you follow the rules?"
Any plans for more beauty pageants?
When I entered the pageant it was a one-time thing. But after receiving so many messages from girls and just realizing how important it was to do what I did, I don't want to send the message that it's OK to be a quitter.
So that's a maybe?
I think this is such a good cause [to] spread the message that everybody is beautiful in their own way and that beauty isn't a one-size-fits-all. If I can find different ways to spread that message, I will. And if that means me continuing to do pageants, then that's what I will do.