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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Prancing into the Beauty Pageant Pandemonium

A Miss-Canada Pakistan beauty pageant is coming Ottawa this Saturday. To the organizers, it’s an exciting cultural event - a way to instil confidence among young Pakistani women. So they are baffled as to why the event has come under fire from Muslims across Canada.

I do not see Muslims rushing to condemn the event. The organizers appear to have mentioned publicly that the Muslim community is concerned about a beauty pageant taking place, and the media has pounced on the story, actively searching out Muslim leaders to get their opinions. Nevertheless, this is not an Islamic event. There is no “Muslim take” on the issue.

Having said that, the organizers would like to know what is wrong with their beauty contest. After all, they say, it is Canada, and it is the 21st century. Interestingly enough, criticism of the beauty contest has been advanced from all quarters. Muslims of different stripes are protesting, all of them with very compelling reasons for doing so. It is rather ironic that Muslims who self-identify as “moderates” or “progressives” oppose the pageant with the same vigour as that of “traditional” or conservative Muslims, but for different reasons.

“Progressive” Muslims claim beauty contests objectify women’s bodies. By judging women based on their looks and their moves, beauty pageants dehumanize women and reduce their worth to their physical attributes. Even worse, this Miss Canada-Pakistan beauty pageant is being introduced at a time when the whole concept of these competitions is going out of style. Muslim women are picking up a “Western” practice that is being gradually discarded.

“Traditional” Muslims would agree with these “progressive” arguments. But they would add something more: beauty contests are antithetical to Islamic standards of morality and modesty. At its most basic level, the concept of the hijaab is about decency on a personal and societal level. Hence the public sphere is desexualized in an Islamic milieu. The male choreographer’s command that the girls “swing [their] hips” is foreign to anyone who takes Islam seriously; doing so before a mixed audience is simply unacceptable.

Furthermore, an overemphasis on outward manifestations of beauty is looked down upon in Islam. Muslims love beautiful things because it is a reminder of God’s many bounties. Muslims do not worship or glorify physical beauty; they worship God, the very source of all things beautiful. Beauty then is instrumental to a Muslim’s relationship to God. Choosing to put on an event that will reward personal beauty seems misguided and unwise.

This is not to say that Muslim women should not be having a good time. But there are other more halaal ways of doing so that simultaneously respect the dignity of young Muslim women. Individuals looking to make change within the community must explore more positive methods to promote the self-confidence of women; one’s worth should be tied not to outward appearance, but rather to character, ability and achievement.

Nevertheless, regardless of one’s opinions towards the concept of a beauty contest, one has no right to threaten the organizers with bombs or bombard them with hate mail. Muslims must rise above such unthinking idiocy. Canada is a liberal democratic society. As long as the girls have consented to participate, there is nothing any Muslim can or should do to prevent them from doing so. One can criticise the event or even try to persuade the organizers that a beauty pageant is not the right way to go, but that is where one’s involvement must end. Resort to violence is just plain ugly.


  • At 3/17/2005 10:36:00 p.m., Blogger Aliya said…

    Salaam -
    I agree with you...its not a religious event, so Muslims should basically just mind their own business (but you know how we Muslims LOVE to pry and stick our noses where they do not belong). But even on a cultural level, the event it flawed. I wrote a letter to the toronto star which they published:

    Fails to celebrate Pakistani culture

    Letter, March 15.
    As a practising Muslim and second-generation Pakistani-Canadian, I, too, have reservations about the concept of a beauty contest. Religiously, it violates the ideas of modesty, humbleness and simplicity. Culturally, it fails to do justice to real Pakistani culture. Why not have a evening celebrating the great poets, writers and artists of Pakistan? If this is really supposed to celebrate Pakistan and its culture, then isn't it a bit ironic that instead of wearing shalwar kameez, they will all wear evening dresses?

    Noor Javed, Toronto

    Gotta represent the shalwar kameez! ;)

  • At 3/17/2005 10:40:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hey Noor,

    Salams! I saw that letter. My parents were showing me all the letters people wrote in and I said "oh, I know her!" I pray all is well with you.


    - Nosheen

  • At 3/18/2005 03:34:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Salaam, girls. Excited to hear from both of you at once!

    Noor, nice perspective. I'm glad your letter was published by the Star. I think the media's the one harassing the Muslim community for comments, making this whole pageant into a Muslim issue when it really isn't.

    Nosheen, you're getting brave, m'dear. I'm proud of you. Oh, how I love teasing you! So you said you were looking forward to hearing my take on this contest...did I make it worth your while? ;-)

  • At 3/19/2005 11:30:00 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Wa'alaykum Assalam wa Rahmatullah,

    Yes, Safiyyah, you're perspective's always interesting to hear :) Jazakum Allahu Khayran.

    As far as the whole "this is not a Muslim issue", some thoughts...

    I wonder if it is the media alone that is making this a "Muslim issue". Last night on the news they were showing the organizer/contestants and *they* were saying the contest shows that you can be "Muslim and Canadian" and that there's no conflict there. Does the media play a role in rubbing people the wrong way? - No doubt, they started the story showing a contestant cat-walking down the street in rather unmodest clothing while the reporter said "XYZ is a practicing Muslim who doesn't see a conflict between being a Muslim and taking part in a beauty pageant..." So perhaps the pageant folks are using the media where they know they'll jump at the chance, as a means to gain publicity? Just a thought.

    Another issue. I'm not sure how much people can disconnect being Muslim and being Pakistani. Pakistan was set up as a state for Muslims (regardless of political theory), the partition largely separated Muslims and non-Muslims, and Pakistanis make themselves out to be "so different" from "those Indians"... When someone says "I'm Pakistani" 99% of the time they're Muslim. For Muslims, culture cannot be a entirely distinct entity, not for me at least, as someone who is Muslim and of Pakistani origin.

    Anyhow, I shall make it known now, that this is the most I've said on the issue and I have no intention of saying anything more given my 497 deadlines in the next month ;)

    And Allah knows best.


  • At 3/20/2005 04:40:00 p.m., Blogger Mohop said…

    ummm...this event is really ridiculous.

  • At 3/21/2005 12:35:00 a.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…


    I appreciate the discussion - and feel much the way the awed young man at the IAW felt - having asked my own (Christian) family when quizzed on the hijab 'What colour is Mary's hair' (Peace be upon her and her son)

    On the other hand; Someone noticed recently that (women or converts or 'ethnic muslims') are often asked to give speeches on the tolerance and diversity of Islam, muslims politely applaud, then carry on with the same social, cultural, and ethnic mores that they had before the speech - ie, ignoring and shunting women, second-guessing or doubting converts sincerity ('spy? christian missionary'? I've heard both of those before) and racist/cultural behaviour.

    Idealism is good, we should remember how far we are from the ideal, and try to 'bring Madinah home' - ie, end what the hadith said 'was left of Jahilliyah'

    on a side note, I think sister Fareena put it quite well in the recent Q-news article:

    One young woman tried to prompt me with, “Sister, could you tell the audience about how Muslim women who wear the hijab are seen for their minds, not their bodies?” A young man later added, “Why not tell the audience how Islam elevates the woman in every stage of her life, particularly as a mother and as a wife?”

    What? Are you and I not good enough living examples of those beliefs, that we have to go out of our way to spell them out? These were well-meaning, sincere people but I realised that evening that over the years, I have forgotten the idealistic language they were speaking in. Make no mistake, I told them, I believe in all of the above. I chose the hijab for myself. I come from a Muslim family and chose to marry into another and am very contented, alhamdulillah. However, I just couldn’t bring myself to speak the way these young people wanted me to speak.


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