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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.

''The route she took to get this fame is not in line with Islam. A Muslim woman can be beautiful, but walking around in front of millions of viewers in a swimsuit, is not in sync with Islamic values," said Ansari.

The Quran speaks of beauty and demureness, saying that Muslim women should "lower their gaze and guard their modesty," and should not "display their beauty and ornaments." It also cautions women to "draw their veils over their bosoms."

Still, other Muslim women have participated in beauty pageants, even though Islamic authorities in Malaysia, Egypt, and elsewhere have issued fatwas prohibiting Muslim participation in beauty pageants.

In 2002, Nigerian Muslims objecting to the Miss World contest being held in their country rioted, leaving more than 200 people dead.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a growing number of Muslims who are participating in — and winning — beauty pageants.

Hammasa Kohistani, the daughter of Afghan refugees, became the first Muslim to win Miss England in 2005, beating out another Muslim contestant, Sarah Mendley, who competed as Miss Nottingham.

Representing Turkey, Azra Akin, the Dutch-born daughter of Turkish immigrants, won Miss World in 2002 after that contest was moved to London. Other Muslims have gone into modeling, including Yasmeen Ghauri, who has worked for Victoria's Secret and Versace, among others.

Given the growing number of Muslim women entering the beauty industry, Fakih's victory isn't that shocking to many Muslims. More interesting, they say, is how anti-Islamic commentators have reacted.

Daniel Pipes, who runs the conservative Middle East Forum, suggested on his blog that Muslims winning beauty contests was an "odd form of affirmative action."

''Don't let her lack of a headscarf and her donning a bikini in public fool you. Miss Michigan USA, Rima Fakih is a Muslim activist and propagandist extraordinaire," fumed Debbie Schlussel, a conservative talk-show host, on her blog on May 13.

She also accused Fakih of having relatives that were in Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. "Hezbollah Muslims believe that Fakih is a tremendous propaganda tool for them," Schlussel wrote.

To many Muslim observers, the comments veer between sad and absurd.

''That is the most disturbing aspect of this story, since it reveals the abject racism some Americans express towards Muslims and Arabs," said Al-Marayati. "They refuse to accept that we are part of the fabric of America."

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