When Michelle Leslie donned a burqa while imprisoned awaiting trial in Bali last year, the responses from Australian Muslims varied from outrage and disgust to complete apathy. Many Muslims took her actions personally, offended that she may have been using Islam to guide herself to freedom. Others wisely demonstrated just how little they cared. As the Islamic Council of Victoria’s Waleed Aly wrote at the time, “it’s no fluff off my prayer mat.”
If it isn’t abundantly clear already, Muslims love their religion and they take it very seriously. We don’t want our customs, beliefs and traditions to be given un-Islamic interpretation and meaning, or given the Daniel Pipes treatment. Avoiding misunderstanding is always highly desirable. Using Islam for, ostensibly, self-serving purposes can lead to chaos.
Yet, it seems that we are unable to successfully project our own desired image, due in no small part to the diversity, and therefore difference, within the Muslim community. Consequently, it is left to others to form an acceptable “Australian-Muslim identity”, often resulting in that undesirable misunderstanding.
Cue Sabrina Houssami, who has unwittingly caused the latest Muslim-related din. As Australia’s first ever Muslim entrant in the Miss World competition, the competition has gained far more coverage than it deserves.
Amid the feel-good promotion of an Aussie-Lebanese-Indian-Muslim taking part in a global beauty pageant, you will hear the howls of protest from various corners. There are the usual voices of dissent with respect to the evils of beauty pageants: that pageants degrade women, reducing them to little more than eye candy. This, however, is hardly a new concept.
Such competitions provoke intense opposition from people of all ethnicities, religions and of both genders. As Radar’s Dominic Knight points out, “They are ogle-fests, nothing more; a walking, talking version of FHM dressed in a layer of patronising trash about global understanding that infuriates anyone who actually works towards it.”
Yet these arguments against such contests are met with just as many enthusiastic, albeit questionable, justifications: pageant contestants are intelligent as well as beautiful, backed by impressive resumes, making the world a better place through charity work. Perhaps their charitable work does make a difference; but why swimsuit and evening gown competitions are necessary to achieve this is bewildering.
Houssami takes these asinine justifications further by invoking religion, breathtakingly saying, “Religion is something that is interpreted by the individual and I try to focus on the moral values of religion. I will wear a bikini but not a string bikini, so as long as it is not skimpy.”
It’s rather difficult to digest Houssami’s insouciance. In reading this, there would be those operating at a very basic level of shock: how can she link moral values of a religion to a swimsuit competition?
But my first reaction (one which is probably shared by many other Muslims) is to ask why her religion is being mentioned at all.
Muslims are rightly affronted (and consequently disadvantaged) by the mention of religion when a Muslim commits a crime; we’re just as affronted when Islam is “illuminated” for a beauty pageant. The two simply have no comparison or connection.
Drowning this discussion in feminist rhetoric of beauty myths, as though no Muslim values it, would be disingenuous. The modesty of Muslim women wearing hijab or a burqa should not be interpreted as meaning beauty has no place in a Muslim woman’s life; of course, it does.
However, by mentioning her religion in the context of a beauty pageant, Houssami, who is not visibly practising her faith with her dress, is indirectly claiming a representative role. Her behaviour is aligned with, and perhaps even deemed acceptable in, Islam. This places other Muslim women in an unfavourable light by marking their modest dress as an extreme approach to Islam. Given that modesty is required in both men and women, this is simply not the case.
Sabrina Houssami owes no explanation to anybody and she is completely free to do as she pleases. If she wants to wear a bikini, parade in front of millions and justify it by saying she’s a member of MENSA and loves to act charitably, it ultimately matters little. But these competitions do not look to a contestant’s spirituality and belief system. Religion should simply be left out of it.