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Can Muslim women be hot?

By Alice Aslan - posted Thursday, 27 May 2010


Rima Fakih, the latest Miss USA, has come under scrutiny with the allegations that in the past she won a pole contest at a strip club. But this is nothing unusual - it is almost an essential aspect of beauty contests, following which most beauty queens might get embroiled in alcohol, drug or sex scandals.

However, what makes Fakih unique is her multiple identities: she happens to be an American of Lebanese-Shi’ite Muslim background. And as some commentators have highlighted, in a positive or negative light, she is the first Arab-Muslim Miss USA. Therefore she has to bear the brunt of being the first and deal with all the attention that comes with it. Moreover, her image gets attached to the political collage of September 11 attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism …

Fakih has challenged the popular negative stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims in the post 9-11 USA: she looks neither like a terrorist nor an oppressed woman. Though she and her family have always been concerned about these prejudices, she achieved this almost casually, in a non-political way, not like a political activist who doggedly challenges such misrepresentations, but by just trying her luck in the beauty contest and beating all the other contestants. And her victory unintentionally has inflamed political animosities and triggered a cacophony of confused voices.

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She has been described as an Islamic propagandist in disguise, and her victory as the latest demonstration of Muslim-pandering by some resentful conservative commentators who are already furious with tolerant President Obama who had called for a new beginning with Muslims around the world and last year allowed thousands of Muslims to pray on Capitol Hill. Some have even linked her to terrorism pointing to the fact that she was born in Srifa in southern Lebanon, controlled by Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite group blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington.

Some other gossipy and misinformed commentators have been amazed by Fakih’s bikini photo - obviously comparing it to the images of burqa-clad women in Afghanistan, and naively asked if Muslim women can be hot, or in fact if they are allowed to be hot according to Islam. But aren’t they aware that secular Muslim countries already hold national beauty contests to choose the most beautiful young women to represent their societies in scanty clothes at international contests?

And a Hezbollah MP who was asked his opinion about the new Miss USA disdained the contest - just like some feminists would do, and asserted in an ideologically-driven way that they had different standards of assessing women compared to the West, in complete denial of diversity of women in Muslim countries. But don’t the western and Muslim countries always carry on their long-standing ideological feuds through clinging to black and white stereotypical images of women on both sides: if Muslim women are viewed as subservient and oppressed in western societies, western women are considered sex objects and women of easy virtue in Muslim countries.

But of course many people from different backgrounds have supported Fakih. Especially her relatives back in Lebanon, who are frustrated by the general portrayal of the Shi’ite Muslims as fanatics, have welcomed her victory as an honour. So have numerous Arabs and Muslims in the US, and probably around the world, cheered this golden opportunity that eventually allows them to participate in the upbeat, popular American culture.

Fakih’s case is also reminiscent of the erstwhile role of women as builders of alliance: in the old days, especially noble women who married noble men from other nations and groups strengthened the ties between different kingdoms and tribes. And now in a totally different context in our post-modern world, Fakih opens the door of acceptance for Arabs and Muslims in multicultural USA.

To some extent, Australians can sympathise with the current euphoria of Arabs and Muslims. They cheered likewise when an Australian woman married a Danish prince and became Princess Mary. Although Australians have never been in a similar political environment to that which surrounds Arabs and Muslims, Mary’s royal marriage symbolised more acceptance and respect for Australians, a nation isolated from the rest of the western world, in Europe.

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Although Fakih has achieved something great by giving Arabs and Muslims a human face, one can’t expect her to represent all Arabs and Muslims, and voice all their concerns and wishes. And for those commentators who associate her with terrorism, isn’t it unfair to expect her to shoulder the endless political problems and turmoils of the Middle East and of this world?

After all Fakih is an individual like everyone else, with her individual concerns, hopes and expectations from life. She is the Miss USA 2010 with Arabic features, a product of multicultural America, which is the cradle of migration. Besides being Lebanese and Muslim, she is a young beautiful American woman who attended a Catholic school and who asserts that her family celebrates all religions, and has many other individual qualities.

But almost in all societies today the problem is rooted in our tendency to lock people who are different from us into black and white stereotypes, which diminish and limit them, and in our anger and surprise when we see that in fact real people don’t fit in such categories and stereotypes.

After all, what Rima Fakih now needs to do is to be herself, just as her supportive father has always told her, to enjoy being Miss USA and to make the best use of the opportunities her victory will provide her with.

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About the Author

Alice Aslan is a Turkish-Australian anthropologist, writer and activist based in Sydney. She is passionate about the arts, ideas and justice. She is the author of "Islamophobia in Australia". She can be contacted at alice.aslan@gmail.com

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