Long before the now-infamous scantily clad pictures of the newly crowned Miss USA gyrating against a pole surfaced, the debate surrounding Rima Fakih’s triumph was already well under way in certain households. Virtually overnight, the American Muslim diaspora was cast into the spotlight in an unprecedented and complex manner. On the one hand, Rima’s win symbolized a tremendous gain for Muslim acceptance into broader society and pop culture. But as the concepts of modesty and humility remain central to Islam, many began questioning if winning a beauty pageant was truly a moment of joviality.
Now to be fair, Rima has not openly proclaimed herself to be a Muslim. In fact, she has stated that her family ‘celebrates both the Muslim and Christian faiths’ and she instead classifies herself simply as an Arab American. But since the media, pundits and average folk have already dubbed her a representative of the community, let’s treat this as such.
As an American Muslim woman who prides herself on bridging the many worlds that encompass my own identity, I was initially elated to learn that an Arab American took home the crown in a contest that serves as a pinnacle — if not the pinnacle — for the standard of beauty in this nation. FINALLY, I thought. At a time when the Muslim and Arab disposition is so often misconstrued and stereotypically represented, Rima’s win in my mind served as a reminder that 1.5 billion people on this planet are not a homogenous body, but rather represent a broad spectrum of lifestyles. This was undoubtedly, a great moment for us — or so I presumed.
“Everyone practices his or her faith in their own way,” says Suehaila Amen, VP of the Lebanese American Heritage Club in Dearborn, Michigan, who has interacted with Rima in the community for several years. “But you’re not going to get Muslims to say this is who we are, and this is what being a Muslim is all about. On the one hand, it’s great; Rima has the opportunity to put Dearborn and Arab Americans on the map, but I would love to see other ways of Muslims being accepted into the mainstream culture.”
In a country where assimilation is the appropriate means of gaining acceptance, how much is too much? Can one strip (no pun intended) his or her identity to the point where the values and culture that defined this individual become virtually non-existent? As I continue to boast of ‘one of our own’ taking home the crown, I cannot help but think of those women who don’t feel comfortable wearing a bikini or who — dare I say — cover their hair. Even though I firmly believe people need a moderate balance of the competing dualities that define him or her, I cannot say without hesitation that Rima’s conquest is a gain for those on the more conservative end of the spectrum.
Dawud Walid, an assistant Imam of Masjid Wali Muhammad in Detroit and an active participant in the Dearborn community believes Rima’s pageant win puts an unwarranted burden on the 24-year-old.
“She won a beauty contest, and now she’s being looked upon as an ambassador to her religion,” he says. “Every time you have a person from an oppressed group break the threshold in a specific area, suddenly they are forced to represent the entire community whether or not they are qualified to do so or even have the desire to do so.”
Case in point: Vanessa Williams. As the first African American woman to win the Miss America pageant in 1984, her victory — and almost immediate downfall — became a reflection of all African American women in the court of public opinion. And in the decades since, African American women have been consistently battling for appropriate representation within mainstream society when it comes to the notion of beauty. Instead of headscarf versus no scarf, the conversation has often centered around light skin versus dark skin. But the underlying principle is still the same — when does acceptance translate into conformity?
During my days as the editor-in-chief of a Muslim magazine dedicated to young professionals, I debated and probed these very issues with my all-female staff. And today, while I’m ecstatic that we are finally depicted in another context outside of the usual long-bearded extremist chanting epithets in Arabic while draped in long garb, I have to think of our progress in critical terms. Even though Rima’s victory is undoubtedly shattering the proverbial glass ceiling, it is also simultaneously painting those Muslim women who practice the religion in a more traditional manner as further and further from the norm.
As Muslims slowly receive recognition from the halls of Congress to the latest swimsuit competition, I’m torn between pride and notions of otherness. While the United States continually diversifies and reshapes its own identity, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Rima pulled out a hijab (headscarf) last minute and tied it snuggly underneath her crown right before taking the legendary Miss USA victory walk.