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Beauty Condemned: The Politics of Clothing & Pageants in Islamic Societies

***This article was originally published in December 2003.

By Rafa Delfin

THE third year of the Miss Earth beauty pageant ended last  month in Manila. A beautiful and striking young woman from Honduras, Dania  Prince, triumphed over fifty-six other equally beautiful contestants each of  whom articulated her vision of making the world a better place to live. When  Miss Earth started in 2001, there was not much fanfare; several critics even  panned the pageant claiming that it is a novelty and that it would end in a few  years time. Though it is hard to predict the longevity of a pageant, it is  easier to evaluate its purpose - to raise awareness of environmental problems  and to seek ways to resolve them - all this by assembling beautiful women from  all the over the world in glitz, glamour and yes, bikini.

      During its second year, the Miss Earth pageant has gained enough  popularity to receive more participants, yet it still lacked the popularity  associated with its rivals Miss Universe, Miss World and Miss International.  However, this year, the pageant caught global attention when a young woman, Vida  Samadzai, a former refugee and now a California resident, represented  Afghanistan and wore a red bikini as a symbol of the newly liberated Afghan  women. Samadzai did not win, but pageant officials presented her with a special  award called "Beauty for a Cause" for "symbolizing the newfound confidence,  courage and spirit of today's women" and "representing the victory of women's  rights and various social, personal and religious struggles." Samadzai received  the award in tears and was warmly congratulated by her peers. Miss Earth  officials claimed that the award was not created especially for Samadzai, though  it is not clear if it will be presented again in future pageants.

     Samadzai's participation in Miss Earth generated protests from  conservative Muslims in her country. Fazel Ahmad Manawi, deputy head of  Afghanistan's Supreme Court, told the Associated Press that Samadzai betrayed  Afghan culture by wearing a bikini and that she might face criminal charges  should she return to Afghanistan. Habiba Surabi, the Afghan minister for women's  affairs, has condemned Samadzai for her "lasciviousness" and declared that the  beauty queen does not represent the Afghan woman. To some westernized  non-Muslims, such attitude may seem absurd; a bikini is nothing more than a  female garment designed to cover certain parts while the rest of the body is  exposed to the elements. It just so happens that some women wish to wear a  bikini on the beach and feel the rays of the sun. On the other hand, some  conservative Muslim women also go to the beach and bathe totally clothed - a  practice that may seem impractical and ridiculous to many people. What is the  point of enjoying the warmth of the sun and the pleasure of the sea if you do  not even take off your outer garments? What is even more ludicrous about  Surabi's comments is that Afghan women were allowed for many years to wear  Western clothing - shirts, blouses and even short skirts - before the Taliban  came into power. Surabi should actually be condemning the Taliban for  re-imposing the burqa instead of criticizing Samadzai.

      Certainly it is not the first time that a Muslim contestant was  condemned for joining a beauty pageant or that beauty pageants are always  welcome. Last year,  Neelam Norani, a young woman from Pakistan, was barred by  the Pakistani government to represent her country in the 2002 Miss International  pageant in Tokyo. Noorani's story made the front page of The News, a Pakistani  daily. Noorani had already arrived in Tokyo and begun her participation in the  pageant when the Pakistani government ordered her to remove the "Miss Pakistan"  sash and to return home. The Pakistani secretary for culture, sports and  tourism, Tariq Januja, claimed that Noorani's "shameful" participation is a  total "contrast" to Pakistan's Islamic-based cultural and religious values. (1)  Natasha Newcombe, Miss Pakistan 2003, was supposed to represent her country in  this year's Miss International and Miss Earth pageants, but for unknown reasons,  she failed to participate in either one. It is important to note that not all  Islamic societies condemn pageants. Moderate Islamic countries such as Turkey  and Malaysia have been sending representatives to beauty contests for many  years. One of the requirements to participate in the national pageant is to  parade in a swimsuit; this raises the question. "Why are the Muslims in Nigeria  and Pakistan so bothered by the sight of a woman in a swimsuit, yet not the  Muslims in Turkey or Malaysia?" This proves that not all Muslims think alike and  that many Muslims do not follow everything in the Qur'an.


MANY non-Muslims who have adapted to western ways continue to wonder why Islamic  culture is so obsessed with covering the body. To understand such mentality, it  is important to discuss the dress code as it is written in the Qur'an (Koran),  the so-called "holy" book for Muslims. The Qur'an instructs that Muslim women  should "lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display  their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that  they should draw veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to  their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons..." (Al  Qur'an 24:31). The Qur'an instructs both believing men and women to observe the  'hijab rules'. In the light of reasoning, I propose to analyze each rule to  grasp a better understanding and to show how each rule may seem unjust to the  female sex in general:

1. The clothes worn by a man must cover the body at least from the navel  to the knees. Those worn by a woman must cover the complete body except the face  and hands. Head-to-toe garments worn by women include the Burqa,Chador and  Hijab. 

Analysis: A Muslim man may expose his upper body as long as the portion  "from the navel to the knees" is completely covered. There is nothing wrong with  a Muslim man taking off his shirt whenever he wants to (working and sweating in  the hot sun, lying on a beach, or engaging in oil-wrestling with another man).  However, Muslim women are not even allowed to expose even one strand of hair. A  Muslim woman who wears the hijab feels that she does not have to worry about  being beautiful - an idea which is glorified in the West and in most cultures.  Of course, there are non-Muslim women who do not put much importance on their  appearance either, but this does not mean that they can wear whatever they want  in a formal setting.

2. The clothes worn should be loose and should not reveal the figure. 

Analysis: This rule is obviously not followed by all Muslims, as we see  many of them wearing Westernized clothes such as t-shirts, shirts, trousers and  dresses. Does this mean that these Muslims are not real Muslims at all?  Sometimes, these clothes are tight-fitting and reveal the wearer's figure. Isn't  it strange that Islamic fanatics who hate the West also rely on state-of-the-art  technology that was invented and developed in the West? But that's another  topic. There is absolutely nothing wrong with loose clothing; it is quite  popular with many Westernized young people who have been influenced by  baggy-wearing and bejeweled hip-hop celebrities. However, the level of  comfortability becomes a subjective issue. Are you wearing loose clothing  because you don't feel comfortable wearing clothes that fit properly, or are you  trying to hide something? The fact that this rule forbids revealing one's figure  indicates that Islam abhors the human body. How else are you going to attract  someone if not with your physical charm? Likewise, loose clothing may not be  practical in professions that require a lot of physical work and movement. I  cannot imagine a Muslim woman doctor wearing a burqa and performing brain  surgery on a patient, or a Muslim man firefighter (I say 'man' because I have  never heard of a female Muslim firefighter) wearing a loose robe and trying to  rescue a fire victim. And what do you with sports that require the athlete to  wear tight-fitting clothes, such as gymnastics, swimming, diving, track and  field and the like? Now you wonder why there are no great female Muslim  athletes. And have you ever thought about wearing a burqa on hot summer days?  Honestly, how many Afghan women truly enjoy wearing the burqa under the Taliban  regime?

3. The clothes worn should not be transparent such that one can see  through them.

Analysis: A transparent clothing may be deemed as erotic or sexy,  depending on the person who is wearing it. Some people who wear transparent  clothing intend to be seen as naked or to flirt with someone. The key word is  intend. Many female belly-dancers wear transparent clothing because it is their  intention to entertain and entice their male audience. Are we to say that Muslim  female belly-dancers are not true Muslims because they do not observe the "no  transparent clothing" law?

4. The clothes worn should not be so glamorous as to attract the opposite  sex.

Analysis: Glamour, like style or class, is not easy to define because  it is so subjective. Merriam-Webster dictionary gives two definitions: "a magic  spell" and "an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness." In a  fundamentalist Islamic culture, there is no place for magic or romance, thus  clothing should be as trite and plain as possible. However, there are  progressive Islamic societies that encourage fashion designers and fashion  shows. What kind of clothes do these designers make? Loose, of course, but  trendier with a little bit of color and pattern perhaps.

5. The clothes worn should not resemble that of the opposite sex.

Analysis: Supposedly, the prophet Mohammed cursed women who tried to resemble  men and men who resemble women, and prohibited women from wearing men's clothing  and vice-versa. If Mohammed were alive today, he would be cursing drag queens,  performance artists, Shakespearian actors, the entire cast of "Monty Python's  Flying Circus", effeminate eunuchs, butch lesbians, effeminate gay men, career  women who wear shirts and trousers, shamans (who possess bigender qualities),  and every transvestite in the world. The only female general in the Afghan army,  Khatol Mohammad Zai, wears military fatigues and a beret. In spite of her  prestigious position, conservative Afghans, especially men, either deride her or  tell her that a woman's place is at home. It is interesting to note that in some  Middle Eastern countries, there are young males who belly dance "in long,  unrevealing robes with a scarf tied around the hips" and who dance for the  entertainment of other men.

     What would Mohammad think of the idea of men wearing robes and  entertaining other men? I raised the Islamic dress code above because it is  important to understand why many Muslims are reluctant to reveal their bodies.  The dress code was written - presumably by Mohammad - to maintain modesty, to  discourage sexual transgressions, and to make women pay less attention on their  physical appearance. After all, if you pay too much attention on your physical  appearance, you may fall into the trappings of vanity which is hardly a virtue.  Consider how much money you can save by not buying beauty or grooming products.  You do not have to worry about looking good or what other people think of your  looks because no one really cares. You do not have to buy fashion magazines to  find out the latest trends or which celebrities made it on the best-dressed or  worst-dressed list. Essentially, if everyone looks like you and dresses like  you, then everyone can focus on things far more important than material things.  Such is the practicality of school uniforms; statistics will show that students  in schools - where uniforms are worn - learn better and behave kinder to one  another than students in schools where civilian clothing is the norm. In a  working environment, a fully-clothed woman can easily avoid being ogled at by  her male co-workers.

     A true feminist would argue that the Koranic dress code was written  specifically to restrict clothing choices for women and does not always  guarantee that a woman will have her modesty intact. Muslim women are sexually  harassed and raped even when they are completely covered. In non-Islamic  societies where there is a significant population of Muslims and where animosity  towards Muslims is rampant, it has become quite common to hear reports of Muslim  women being taunted for wearing the hijab. In France, there is a growing  movement to ban the wearing of hijab in public places or gatherings because it  is viewed by secularists as a religious imposition. Not all chadors or burqas  are visually attractive or pleasant either. One time, when I was shopping in a  supermarket in Quincy (a suburb of Boston), I stumbled upon a Muslim woman who  was covered from head to toe; even her face was covered except for a generous  slit so she could see. But her black, loose robe was the most appalling clothing  I have ever seen. I said to myself, "Honey, if you're going to wear a robe,  you might as well make it more attractive. There's no sense in scaring little  American children with that ugly piece of sack!"


THE PUBLIC will be glad to hear that there is an increasing number of Muslim  fashion designers who make every effort to diversify the chador, the burqa or  the hijab. Many of these designers are Muslim women who feel that there is not  enough loose and modest clothing in the market that conforms to the Islamic  concept of decency and modesty. I say that the bigger the fabric, the more  designs you can come up with. A plain chador should be considered as an empty  canvass to be worked on. Head scarves now come in different fabrics and styles,  and affluent Muslim women have seemed to take a liking on expensive Herm?s  scarves and other prestigious designer brands. Conservative Islamic societies  should encourage fashion design schools that will cater to the needs of their women.

Being comfortable and modest is not enough; variety can come a long way as to  make the individual feel "glamorous" or "chic". Perhaps Muslim women may not be  wearing chadors with French Poodle appliqu?s any time soon, but it is certainly  an idea to consider when dressing up teenage Muslim girls who wish to be trendy.  It is unfortunate, though, that for every step to progress, there are forces  that hinder it. Three years ago in Niger, fundamentalist Muslims protested a  fashion show that was scheduled to take place. The fashion show, organized by  Niger-born, Paris-based fashion designer Alphadi, would have featured latest designs  by European, African and Japanese couturiers. The protestors argued that the  fashion festival would have caused debauchery, prostitution, the seduction of  young girls, and the spread of AIDS.(4) They also did not approve of Alphadi's  designs, like the one shown in the picture above. In spite of the controversy that entails pageants or beauty-related  events, the press is always present to cover these events and writers never shy  away from expressing their opinions. A Chicago Sun-Times columnist  commented on Samadzai's participation in Miss Earth:
But see, here's the problem: No one's concentrating on intelligence  when staring at your belly button.  You talk about liberating Afghan women while  wearing a teeny red swimsuit and no one's listening. Instead, you're just another object to ogle. They aren't hearing when you  talk about what bad shape life is in if you're an Afghan girl.  I don't doubt Vida Samadzai's sincerity when she says she wants to raise  money for schools for Afghan females. But by trading a burka for a tiny bathing  suit, she has just traded one male master's ideas about the female body for another's. (5)
      I disagree with almost everything that this author is  saying. First of all, who says that the judges and the public are fixated with  Samadzai's belly button? Afghanistan continues to make the news since the U.S.  forces liberated the country from the Taliban in October 2001. There is  incredible information in the media about Afghanistan that it is almost  impossible to ignore the plight of Afghans especially women. Samadzai's red  bikini was her key to grabbing world attention that resulted in a deluge of  interviews by various media agencies, and because of this, Samadzai was given  plenty of opportunity to talk about her negative experiences in her country. Any  smart and beautiful woman would have done the same thing as Samadzai did; after  all, she majored in mass communications, and what better way to communicate with  the masses than to stir controversy even though she had not planned on it?

     Other columnists depict a positive picture of Samadzai, such as a columnist who  goes by the name of "Talleyrand" who writes for a Bangladeshi online news site.  The writer states that Afghan minister Murabi's anger is "misplaced": "She is  part of a government which strives to turn Afghanistan into a modern state (and  Afghanistan last had a modern government, believe it or not, in the days of the  communists) and yet does everything to hold back people from expressing  themselves. Every woman anywhere has the right to demonstrate her beauty in any  way she chooses as long as she does not bring vulgarity into it." (6)

If Samadzai (left) had shown any sign of vulgarity, she would have been  dismissed immediately as every pageant organization requires every candidate to  behave as modestly and decently as possible. Another writer, Newsweek's  Gersh Kuntzman who, in his November 3rd article, not only praised Samadzai's  beauty ("she's totally hot") but also suggested that Samadzai is doing her  countrymen a favor by "ushering them into the future, a future complete with our  notions of democracy, equality for women, free markets and peace."

Kuntzman also interviewed the first Miss Afghanistan Zohra Daoud who  stated that Samadzai is "beautiful and has a beautiful body"; however, Daoud  pointed out that wearing a swimsuit actually hurts the women's movement in her  country: "Women in Afghanistan are fighting just to go to school and get health  care. Wearing swimsuits doesn't help because the fundamentalists point to it and  say, 'See? We don't want to have anything to do with the West.' Islamic society  looks at America and sees nude women, alcohol, drugs, prostitution, but not the  freedom of choice, the human rights, etc. They see only the negative."(7) During  my interview with Daoud last August, she  stated her approval of beauty pageants but without the swimsuit competition that  she believes is another way of exploiting women. She also stressed the  importance of restoring law and order first before implementing freedom and  economic opportunity. Daoud's statements reflect the minds of many Afghans who  believe in choices and that the transition to full freedom may take a long time;  Samadzai - an Americanized Afghan - felt that there is little time to wait, and  her impatience certainly re-opened heated discussions about women's rights and  pageants.

     The bloody events in Nigeria last November 2002, that were caused by  the anti-Miss World riots, attest to the fact that there are certain groups of  people who have either an unhealthy view of the human anatomy or a pathetic  understanding of healthy male-female relationships. It may not be easy to blame  someone who has been raised to believe that the female body should be covered at  all times, but it should be easy to persuade this person into believing that  true beauty comes from within and not from the outside. And once you have  convinced this person that the human heart is the only thing that truly matters,  then bikinis and tight clothes instantly become irrelevant and immaterial.  Samadzai, wherever you are, may your red bikini continue to inspire revolutions  to improve women's lives and may you someday grace an Afghan postage stamp.



Photo of African model courtesy of
Photo of Vida Samadzai courtesy of Associated Press


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