The headline above is not that far-fetched. Consider the following:
In the last decade, and especially since 9/11, Muslim women in various countries have been winning beauty pageants. What is behind this sudden surge with a phenomenon quite alien to the Muslim world?
After the US led bombing and invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Vida Samadzai an Afghan-American became the country’s first woman after the deposed Taliban to appear in 2003 in a bikini during a beauty contest in Manila. I still remember the headline from that period, with Ms. Samadazi’s picture “From Burka to Bikini.” If the tremendous loss of life and homes due to the war was not bad enough, this I felt in terms of humiliation was the nail in the coffin.
Since then, Hammasa Kohistani
became the first ever Muslim girl to win the Miss England beauty contest in 2005. There has been participation of women from Muslim countries from Egypt to Indonesia. The most recent to make headlines is Miss Michigan, Rima Fakih who won the 2010 Miss USA contest.
Although I had covered the subject of beauty in a previous blog, after Ms. Fakih won the competition, I felt compelled to write on this again.
Why? Besides all the controversy surrounding Ms. Fakih, I think there is something far larger going on. Maybe in some circles there is discussion going on about it, but that discourse hasn’t reached the pulpit. I asked the Imam at a local mosque about the subject of beauty, and he candidly mentioned that this is not an area that he follows. He shared a beautiful saying of the Prophet though, “No one will enter Paradise who has an atom’s weight of pride in his heart.” A man said, “What if a man likes his clothes to look good and his shoes to look good?” He said, “God is beautiful and loves beauty. Pride means denying the truth and looking down on people.” In just one narrative there is so much that is captured. I am not a scholar so I’ll let you take what you want from it.
Back to the subject of Ms. Fakih, news about a Muslim woman winning a competition like this, can’t be ignored. An interesting anecdote. On the night of the competition my wife came up to me, and said “you wouldn’t believe who won the Miss USA competition, an Indian.” Given the strong presence of Indian-Americans in the US in different segments including media and entertainment, I was not that surprised. The next day, I saw the headline about Miss USA, and seeing the name definitely thought she was Arab and didn’t think she would be Muslim. As there is a sizeable Christian population in countries like Lebanon, that was my first guess. Later my daughter called my wife and told her Rima Fakih was Muslim. The phone went silent. The result was shock, awe, and difficulty accepting that a Muslim woman would enter and win a beauty pageant.
So I was curious what is behind this wave and change in the portrayal of Muslim women. Not only the who, but the why? As usual I did my research online, and at the library, but I wasn’t too sure where to start. Then I remembered something my wife had said about women from Muslim countries like Afganistan, Iran, and Kashmir. She said, they have natural beauty. Countries like Syria and So there was my key word “natural beauty.”
In the book “Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry”
by Harvard Professor Sean Silverthorne, he states that this is a $330 Billion global beauty industry. There are many giants in this market including Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal, Unilever, and a host of others. Some of the key takeaways from the book are that 19th century industrialization facilitated a worldwide homogenization of beauty ideals. Beauty became associated with Western countries, white people, and with women. Television, and its sponsors from the cosmetics industry like Revlon helped to make them fortunes and to make makeup not only something actresses would use, but a commodity for the everyday woman. With globalization in the 20th century this homogenization was reinforced by Hollywood and the creation of international beauty pageants. It is also interesting to note that in the early eighties China hardly consumed any beauty products, and has now become the fourth largest beauty market where the top brands in cosmetics and skin care are the same as the US. So of all the markets in the world guess which group of nations has been the most conservative and closed? You guessed it the Muslim world.
Let’s talk briefly about beauty pageants. Although there are many pageants, the two most renowned
are the UK based Miss World, started in 1951 and the US based Miss Universe, started in 1952,now owned by Donald Trump. The countries with the most winners of Miss World are India and Venezuela with have five winners each as of 2010. The countries with the most winners of Miss Universe are the US with seven wins, and Venezuela with six. Are these wins just the natural disposition of these countries, that they have the most beautiful women in the world? Jeffrey Kofman in his article In Venezuela, Beauty Is Born … and Made states that Venezuela has learned to manufacture beauty. I would extend that to say that probably applies to the other countries who have developed a pattern of winning. “If Venezuela has a secret weapon in its quest to conquer the world — or at least the world of beauty queens — it can be found in a large pink building in northern Caracas. It is the home of the Miss Venezuela School, a kind of Olympic training academy for extraordinarily beautiful women.” There they have developed the secret formula for creating pageant queens, and one of those secrets is body sculpting, or plastic surgery. They say Venezuela has as many plastic surgeons as dentists. I don’t know about you, but suddenly the dental appointment looks more appealing.
Not only have beauty pageants spread across nations of the world, sadly they have spread to children, where the innocence is robbed by beauty pageants that sexualize and exploit them. There are over 3 million children, mainly girls, from six months to 16 years who compete in these for crowns and cash.
Where does all of this leave Muslims? In his article “The Choice between Burqa and Bikini” Abid Ullah Jan states, “In fact, covered in a Burqa or uncovered in a bikini – is a subtle subtext in the ‘war against terrorism.’ The United States did not engage in this war to avenge women’s rights in Afghanistan. The US war against the Taliban highlights the US objective to fully impose its cultural ways in which, for example, its own cultural ‘’uncovering’ of the female body impacts the lives of the whole nation.”
I think Jan is right on with his message. I remember seeing a large billboard on my travels. It had a lipstick with a bold imprint over it, “Weapons of Mass Deception.” It is interesting that even after being liberated from the Taliban the vast majority of women in Afghanistan still wear the traditional burqas that were present in those cultures. There is nothing apparent that the new war lords have given any more rights to women than their predecessors. In the city, especially Kabul women are more open to the media and its influence. The Kabul Beauty School both a real entity and now a book, describes how its American founder Debbie Rodriguez a hairdresser from Holland, MI, founded the country’s first modern beauty school and training salon. This is post Taliban of course.
You may say but that’s getting into politics. OK, but aren’t pageants full of politics. In 2009, Carrie Prejean
a Miss California USA 2009 and finalist in the Miss USA 2009 competition was stripped of her Miss California USA crown. Although it was alleged that she breached her contract, the reality is she created a lot of controversy by honestly answering a question about same-sex marriage laws in the US. Not only does a person’s individual standing count in pageants, but the whole perception of a people weighs in. I remember when I grew up, Russian women were portrayed as manly, and unattractive. When the cold war finished, the same women turned into the sexiest women, desirable for marriage and more. They crossed into other segments of entertainment and sports. Tennis players like Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova put Russian women on the map.
When Unilever did a survey of 3,200 women around the world they found that most women thought of themselves as “average” or “natural.” Only 2% thought of themselves as beautiful. How sad. We need to understand that beauty is more than the cosmetics, clothes, perfumes, and all the other elements in which beauty is sold.
I would like to leave you with one last anecdote. While researching the subject I came across an article about a British soldier, Katrina Hodge. She is known not only for her bravery while serving in Iraq, but as someone who tried to convince the Miss England pageant to drop the swimsuit portion of the competition. The reasons were that women should not be made to go through indignity to outdo one another, it encourages voyeurism which leads to sexual disorders in society, it gives birth to inferiority complex, it increases skin mutilations and death (due to plastic surgery) and it credits the wrong person. The latter blew me away. The writer poses the question “ We did not create ourselves, did we? Why should one be credited for the shapes one was graciously given during creation? Let us give credit to whom all glory belong to: God! It is through him such wonderfully and beautifully made creatures called women were made. Let us not forget that!”
Ifat Azad in her article “In Search of Body Beautiful” states that Therefore, it is obligatory for us to accept the creation of Allah as it is, not making any alterations to it. More importantly though, it is also obligatory or us to believe that all of Allaah’s creation is beautiful, because Allah, the Khaliq (Creator) does not create anything except with beauty and perfection. Although we come in all colors, and sizes, the Prophet Muhammad gave a beautiful supplication “O Allah, as You have made my appearance beautiful, likewise make my character beautiful.” Beauty is about the whole self.
Maybe it’s time to revisit competitions like the Saudi “Miss Beautiful Morals.”
Again I ask, where does this leave Muslims? I don’t have any answers or proposals. I am neither an Islamic scholar nor a sociologist. I am just trying to start a dialogue. As in other spheres of life if the majority Muslims don’t speak out, the ones on the fringes will capture the headlines. As a community we must have an identity and position on the world of beauty. Maybe the year 2020 isn’t that far down the beauty runway. If it doesn’t happen we will just end up being passive consumers of corporatocracy.
Silverthorne Sean: Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry
Jones Geoffery G: The History of Beauty
Miss World, Miss Universe facts: WikiPedia
Kofman Jeffrey: In Venezuela, Beauty Is Born … and Made
Schultz Kristen and Pleshette Ann Murphy: Beauty Pageants Draw Children and Criticism
Jan Abid Ullah The Choice between Burqa and Bikini
Azad Ifrat: In Search of body beautiful
Diadem Great: 5 More reasons why swimsuits should be banned at beauty pageants-My Special vote for Katrina Hodge.