Miss World Muslimah Doesn't Liberate Me


As young women from across the world prepare to convene in Indonesia to compete for the crown of Miss World 2013 this weekend, an Islamic counter-pageant crowned its own winner in a Muslim-only contest in Jakarta last Wednesday. The Islamic beauty pageant, Miss World Muslimah 2013, organized by the World Muslimah Foundation, was deliberately scheduled prior to the finale of the oldest international pageant amid the protests that united hard-line Islamic conservatives under the charming slogan "Miss World is a whore contest."

Claiming to defy western beauty standards since its establishment in 2011, Miss World Muslimah says it provides an alternative platform for Muslim women which is more relevant to their religious identity than secular beauty pageants. As we know, pageants like Miss World often require women to showcase themselves in bikinis as part of the selection process. An Islamic "response" to the British-run beauty pageant, however, seeks such empowerment through the blatant shaming of uncovered women, portraying them as intrinsically superficial solely because of the skin they expose. All the while, Miss World Muslimah makes the case that it challenges the patriarchy that produces Miss World, despite the fact that it engages in an equally oppressive discourse.

As a Muslim feminist, I consider all beauty pageants to be a living manifesto to patriarchal commodification of women, but I also understand the necessity for "alternative" ways of seeing ourselves to break away from the oppressive nature of socially constructed standards of beauty. Such attempts, however, must work directly against these established lines. 

Eka Shanti, who established the pageant in 2011 after losing her job as a TV news anchor for refusing to remove her headscarf, told AFP that this year they "deliberately held our event just before the Miss World final to show that there are alternative role models for Muslim women."

Such a patronizing sentiment comes as no surprise after Miss World was forced to shift its venue to the Hindu-majority island of Bali and change the swimwear style of the bikini segment of the pageant, as a result of rising protests in Indonesia earlier this month.

An "emancipating" venture like Miss World Muslimah claims to provide a platform for women like me. It's true that I see no liberation in having my persona evaluated, even partially, by a careful examination of my "bikini body." Yet the rhetoric surrounding the Islamic pageant falls far too short of liberating too. It recreates patriarchal labeling of "good" women and "bad" women, "modest" and "indecent" women, "sophisticated" and "shallow" women.

"We don't just want to shout 'no' to Miss World," the pageant's founder, Eka Shanti told Agence France-Presse. "We'd rather show our children they have choices. Do you want to be like the women in Miss World? Or like those in Muslimah World?" 

As Amal Awad, a Sydney-based journalist and a writer, rightfully noted in her post for Australian news outlet ABC on piety and pageantry, "the problem is there doesn't seem to be room to be neither or something in between. The idea that women must fit snugly into one category or another, and the clear suggestion that the females of Miss World are not necessarily moral, pious types, is a dangerous message to send young, impressionable girls." 

Miss World Muslimah's logic functions within an assumption that being Miss Muslimah is automatically more virtuous than being Miss World. That is: covering your body makes you inherently dignified, while exposing it earns you pity. Miss Muslimah has to be "pious, be a positive role model and show how you balance a life of spirituality in today's modernised world," Shanti says. By this logic, a woman who sports swimwear can be none of those things.

The winner of Miss World Muslimah 2013 seems to exemplify contempt for uncovered women. While her dress may be "modest," her reference to these women shows lamentable prejudice. "We are free and the hijab is our pride," Obabiyi Aishah Ajibola of Nigeria told Agence France-Presse, before the final round. She added that the pageant was "nothing like Miss World, where women expose their bodies."

The hypocrisy is blatant and just as sexist as Miss World's restrictive beauty standards. Slut shaming is neither morally acceptable, nor Islamic at its core.

I trust that Ms. Ajibola's genuine intention is indeed to "show the world that Islam is beautiful," which I recognize as necessary, particularly in the context of misinformation and often outright hostility towards Islam. As a Muslim woman, however, I take great offense when the religious teachings on the foremost importance of inner beauty are manipulated to deprive women, whether clothed or naked, of their inherent dignity, simply because their life choices do not align with those of my own. While my faith teaches me to see all souls as equal in the eyes of God, its interpretation functions within the patriarchal framework that desires to control women's lives —and does not in any way represent Islamic truths.

For those few who choose to use spiritual teachings to entitle themselves to arrogance and moral policing of others, it is sadly the amount of cloth over a woman's body that determines her worth. Instead, I wish that we understood that objectification of women does not mechanically occur as her body is uncovered; neither does her liberation happen when her body is concealed — or vice versa. The act of objectifying requires that her dignity be reduced to her physical self and treated impersonally, like an object devoid of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and consciousness. Ironically, it is exactly the kind of discourse that Miss World Muslimah engages in its quest against objectification.

As long as our bodies continue to be objectified for commercial consumption, our bodies are not our own. In male-dominated societies, which dictate that the "ideal" women look, act, and dress certain ways, pageants like Miss World and Miss Muslimah continue to reenforce socialization for generation after generation of young girls and boys. Children grow up thinking of women as endless checklists.

Miss World Muslimah is just another set of criteria to live up to; it burns bridges to gender justice instead of building them.

It sure as hell does not liberate me.

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