The following guest post by Hena Zuberi caused great debate and discussion among the MM staffers as to whether to ignore the subject or let Sr. Hena’s voice be heard. There were concerns about being too reactive as well as piling on a “non-practicing sister”. However, some of us felt that what was at stake was above and beyond the Miss USA competition. Rather, it was about role-models and the type of role-models that Muslims have become so desperate to cheer on. It was about our own dignity and integrity. It was about being sandwiched between terror and bikinis. Here’s to highlight the diversity among us!

I Cannot Cheer You on Sister Rima Fakih, Miss USA 2010: Too Much at Stake

by Hena Zuberi

As a Muslim woman, who is passionate about the using the best of our abilities to make this world a better place alongside our men, I cannot cheer you on Rima Fakih, Miss USA 2010; too much is at stake. I detested beauty pageants when I didn’t wear hijab,  and detest them when I do now. I wish you had used your “passion, courage, and self-confidence” for a better cause.

People do stuff, it gets reported in the papers, the end. But when blogs, Muslim magazines here and all over the world have commentaries that celebrate this as a Muslim victory then it is too much. Even “Muslim feminists,” like Fatemah Fakhraie of Muslimah Media Watch, who normally think beauty pageants are “gross” because of their “history of sexism, exploitation and exclusion” are excited. So sister if one of our own does it, its ok? Talk about letting go of your values.

Fakhraie asks, “Why would any self-respecting feminist cheer at the fact that a Muslim woman has been objectified along with the rest of the Miss USA contestants?” She answers herself, “because she is excited about seeing another female face of Islam in the mainstream media. Rima Fakih is another representation: she doesn’t look like the headscarf-wearing Muslim women usually profiled in human-interest stories (the ones who open their own businesses or are fired from Abercrombie & Fitch stores). She doesn’t look like the war-torn women of Iraq or Afghanistan–representations in the media that Americans are used to seeing.”

Even if she has to agree that that “Rima’s crown represents sexist ideals and expectations…As a media activist and Muslim feminist, I am fully aware of these issues, and I know that her victory is not a real one for Muslim women or Arab American women.”

If you believe that the victory is not a real one then why applaud it? Have we lost all sense of identity that we have to rejoice at a Muslim woman stripping down to her undies as a breakthrough  in Arab/Muslim acceptance in this country? Are we so desperate for any “good” publicity that we will take the bottom of the barrel? My Arab ancestors must be turning over in their graves somewhere. This is not a triumph for any self-respecting Muslim/woman who upholds true feminist beliefs.

“Muslims are moving up,” says a Berkeley brother who identifies as a “liberal”. Trying to make sense of the celebration, Janan Delgado adds in a solid piece on altmuslimah, “Seeing that one of us gets to make it in spite of being Muslim and Arab is another welcome relief.”

I wonder too, how can people think this is making it? What does that mean? If making it means pandering to the ogling crowds of the lowest of low males- like cattle or cars are paraded, being judged on the size of their undergarments. This is wrong on so many levels as an American, as a Muslim, a parent, a teacher and as an immigrant.

Delgado further points out (Jazakillah khair sister): “We are integrated! We can be Muslim and get to do the things other Americans do! We also get to have our bodies paraded like horses at expensive Vegas casinos! Hurray! Except, of course, that when this happens, women like Rima who agree to appear in tiny bikinis are cast as the progressive ones [CNN actually used this word]. In the meantime, those of us who cover up head to toe are contrasted to these beacons of progress, in hopes that one day we see the light as well, and shed off our scarves, and while at it, perhaps all the rest as well.”

Rima, herself is quoted as saying, “I think it would prove that Arabs don’t always try to separate themselves, but instead are integrated into American culture,” she recently told the Global Arab Network.

“What are we doing? We are saying here we are and we are naked like you,” says Sarah Siddiqui, while celebrating her JD from the University of Arizona Law School where she was the Articles editor of their Law Review. ” This is going to change our image, I don’t think so. Most people will look at her and think this is one (anomaly), this is not a typical Muslim.”

“Perhaps a pretty girl like Rima Fakih in a shiny bikini will help dispel the ominous rumors and generate interest in, or at least Google searches on, Islam.” What?! Is this what we are going to do for dawah- strip and spread? An article in Elan the magazine for global Muslim culture says “You go, girl. One small step for a Muslimah, one giant leap for Muslim-kind, as we go from being stereotyped as hairy/angry/terrorists to hot/giggling/beauty queens. I love it”, read Elan’s article.

We need to celebrate another stereotype? Don’t we get a choice about who represents us- it has to be terrorists or winner of beauty pageants? This is an insult to all Muslimahs who are working hard in their respective fields, becoming scholars, lawyers, designers, chefs, professors, doctors, engineers, writers, business women, scientists, teachers and mothers. They struggle everyday to establish themselves, to build the Muslim image despite what Americans see on TV everyday.

“First Muslim Winner of Miss USA,” announces the Guardian’s headline. This is not an achievement of literary, athletic or scientific pursuit to be celebrated at Pita Pits around the country and the Arab world. It is a fact that she is an immigrant of Lebanese descent but do not make this about her Islam. Just as no mention is made of the Ms. Oklahoma, the runner-up’s religion, lets leave the Muslim out of it. When Ashwayria Rai won Ms. World- she was celebrated as an Indian, not a Hindu. Do you know which religion Vanessa Williams, the first African-American Ms. USA practices? Probably not. Read Ahmed rehab’s article in the Chicago Tribune

She wants to be a babe in a bikini then let it be just that, don’t make her the unwilling representative of Muslim women.

I am not saying Muslim women all around the way dress the same way or Muslim women have not dressed this way before. From singers in Arab countries to Pakistani models (some college buddies from Kinnaird are supermodels now) do dress like that but they don’t have headlines in respected papers like the Guardian calling them first MUSLIM anything- they are just singers or models from whatever country. Nor are they being asked in Newsweek to address Muslim women issues and “visit France as a good-will ambassador. She should bring her bikini.”

Making this about her religion, gives our girls the wrong role model to look up to. I am dreading the moment when one of my kids will get congratulated for a Muslim winning the pageant. That will stop my “Muslims don’t do that” line stone cold. When I tell my daughter that Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) may do certain things because she is a non- Muslim, what do I tell her now? Maybe I will tell her the same thing I told her when suicide bombers blew my uncle and nephew up while praying Jumu’ah in Rawalpindi, “that they are not following Islam.” It felt lame then and it feels lame now.

I know sex and all that is sexy sells and that’s what people are into but Muslim teens need stronger Muslim women highlighted in other fields, whose behavior they can emulate. This is why for years I drove the extra 35 miles so my daughters could see their Muslimah pediatrician, she didn’t wear hijab but dressed modestly and would greet them with salaam. They look at her and say, “hey I could do that.”

When Tanya from the youth group asks me ‘Sister Hena, but she is the first MUSLIM isn’t that cool?’ Is it cool? I attend a very liberal masjid, I can see where the girls are going with that – ‘everyone is doing it now even Muslims,’ ‘This opens up door which hasn’t been opened before, and sometimes that is not good’, says Sarah Ahmed, a mother of four college kids.

I am going to call it the David Chappelle syndrome, he cussed, is famous and is Muslim and, so there is a stream of comedians of Muslim backgrounds, who started off innocently but now are on mainstream media cussing away. What is amazing about Brother Chapelle is that quit his 50 million dollar show because of his increasing spirituality, this fact our young brothers ignore. It doesn’t matter that Rima is smart or wants to become a lawyer- she is hot and famous that is the focus.

Living in Los Angeles, I have seen the Kim Karadashian effect. It was bad enough when cheering the acceptance of petite bodies, long dark hair, naturally tanned skin as beautiful and mainstream, many modest Muslimahs shed their clothes, hoping to make it BIG; they are hip, cool and very fashionable. Karadashian is not Muslim, she is of Armenian descent and practices Christianity. It doesn’t matter if you are talented, Kim isn’t. And now we have Rima. Both these women are very pretty no doubt about that, but it keeps coming back to their “sexiness.”

Spengler’s article “Rima Fakih and the fragility of Islam” hit me hard. The article’s premise is “a nation is never really beaten until it sells its women.” It is depressing to see them gloat over our “adoption the habits of the ambient culture.”

A conservative non-Muslim commented on it “As much as I’d like to celebrate this small victory [notice how this is a victory because some believe that Islam will fail, Ma’adhallah], I really can’t believe that Muslim parents reading about Ms. Fakih are terribly overjoyed at the prospect of their daughters becoming pole-dancers and strutting around in bikinis and lingerie… If Muslims in America are presented with a choice of whether to assimilate into larger American society as decadent secularists or remain segregated as pious Muslims, then my guess is they’ll choose the latter option more often than not.” He has more faith in us than I do. Maybe I have too many acquaintances who are rooting for Rima, who are viewing this as a victory, who are proud today to see a “new” image of Muslims.

I keep thinking I may not have a problem with any of this if Ms. USA’s religion wasn’t being made a center point. Well, maybe I would still have a problem as an American mom trying to raise kids with so much immodesty in our society- may be this can be something that Muslims, Christians, and Jews following their faith traditions can all agree on. Maybe we may not concur on how modesty should be practiced down to that last detail but we can agree to the upholding of decent, modest language and dress in the public arena, and speak out about the sexualization of women & girls. We could use this opportunity for interfaith dialogue and action.

Illume magazine’s article by Sister Carma calls it every American girl’s dream- I asked my daughter’s All-American Girl Scout troop what their dream is, what they want to become (my daughter is the only Muslim in the troop). They talked about becoming vets, candle store owners, authors, marine biologists, teachers, graphic designers and pediatric physical therapists, none of them said winning Miss USA.

Rima, I do not know you or what is in your heart and what action of yours Allah (SWT) loves. I can only make dua for you according to my beliefs; may Allah bless you with the love of modesty and haya so you cover the beautiful body that Allah gave you. I promise I will do my cheers for you when you graduate from law school.

P.S. Apparently Rima has declared she isn’t even really a Muslim. But that doesn’t really change the context of this post. The question is about role-models, and remains relevant whether Rima is a Muslim or not. (Removed. Information relating to this is quite vague, so we’ll not speculate)

For a real alternative to a “beauty pageant,” how about the Miss Beautiful Morals?  Now, that’s a celebration of women as humans, not a celebration of women as bodies!

Photo courtesy Peter Sanders