Muslim Miss USA: Progress, or immodesty?

Associated Press Modified: May 19, 2010 at 3:32 pm •  Published: May 19, 2010
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(RNS) Europe's burqa debate and a steady stream of media images showing veiled women have led to a widespread impression that all Muslims are obsessed with covering the female body.

It might be a surprise, then, that many Muslim Americans are toasting Rima Fakih, who made history on Sunday (May 16) by becoming the first Muslim crowned Miss USA.

Fakih, who donned a gold bikini and a strapless white dress for the pageant, will return to Las Vegas in August when she represents America in the Miss Universe contest.

''There's recognition among Muslims that this is not a traditionally Islamic way for a woman to dress," said Shahed Amanullah, editor at AltMuslim.com, a news and commentary website. "But in its own weird way, its progress."

Many Muslims are critical of beauty pageants as lewd and degrading to women. At the same time, Fakih, 24, is being hailed as a symbol of Muslim-American integration who shatters the stereotype of the cloaked and dour Muslim woman.

Fakih's family, which she said celebrates Muslim and Christian holidays, is from Lebanon. After living in Queens, N.Y., where Fakih attended a Catholic high school, the family settled in Dearborn, Mich., home to one of the largest Arab-American communities in America.

Now, Fakih is developing a fan base that includes not only Muslims who are less strict about religious dress-codes, but also those who don headscarves and watch what they wear.

''The crowning of Rima Fakih as Miss USA demonstrates the diversity of Muslims, not just in terms of ethnic diversity, but diversity of opinion and religiosity," said Tayyibah Taylor, editor and chief of Aziza, a magazine that caters to Muslim women, and always features cover models in headscarves.

''So often, people see Muslims as a monolithic group, and this shows that we're not all in one camp."

Laila Al-Marayati, of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Women's League, also said Fakih reflects the diversity in the Muslim- and Arab-American communities.

''It's true that many of us would not dress in a similar manner but, at least here in the U.S., it is a personal choice."

Other Muslims saw additional benefits to Fakih's coronation.

''People are so happy that the headlines about an Arab-American have nothing to do with terrorism," said Ginan Rauf, a progressive Muslim activist from New Jersey. "As a community, we're often targets of ridicule and hostility, so it's nice to see an Arab-American be the object of adoration."

But Fakih's victory wasn't welcomed by all Muslims.

Kiran Ansari, communications director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said beauty pageants degrade women, are un-Islamic and that Fakih does not represent Muslims well.