I woke up this morning to the news that a Lebanese-American woman, Rima Fakih, had become the first Arab Muslim woman to be crowned Miss USA in yesterday’s beauty pageant. Because I do not keep up with every news piece about Muslims in Vegas, I only found out about it through good old Facebook. One FB status by a very good friend of mine, an Arab Muslim woman and self-declared feminist, read; “(Views about beauty pageants aside) I’m double excited that Ms. USA 2010 is a Lebanese American from right around the corner.”
My initial reaction was a puzzled “really?!,” then an excited “wow!” then a pensive “hmm….” And finally an uncomfortable “huh.” I wanted to comment on her status, but what could I say? I thought I wanted to write a sarcastic comment about Rima’s so-called “achievement,” or a trenchant reminder of the exploitative nature of beauty contests, or a self-congratulatory “Yay! Lebanese women rock!” But wait a second, this last comment would not do! Was I not adamantly opposed to these contests? I knew I was. Yet, I also noticed how, quite to my embarrassment, maybe I too was a bit excited about the news. Perhaps my friend’s FB status represented my own mixed sentiments as well?
What captivated me the most about it was the parenthesis “(views about beauty pageants aside)”. Apparently, my friend was able to withhold her reservations about the pageant to rejoice for a moment in Rima Fakih’s victory, and she was not ashamed of making her sentiments public. Clearly, she was not alone. Several news media reported today that Arab-Americans, and Arabs abroad, were celebrating Rima’s victory as a historical breakthrough in the Arab-American community. I suppose that, like my friend and I, some of these people had reservations as well, but where were they? Did all of these get reduced to insignificant parentheses as well?
Well, Rima Fakih’s victory is complicated for a number of reasons. First, American media’s disproportionate focus on “Arab” terrorism is so overwhelming, that a connection between “Arab” and practically anything that does not involve violence is a welcome relief. Except, of course, that Rima’s “ideal” body measurements, as those of every other woman in that pageant, reproduce normative notions of the ideal female body that are violently imposed on every woman out there who is not a size -2 (and for those who are, they are a reminder that they need to continue starving themselves or else). But since this is a different kind of violence, I guess many of us can choose to ignore it.
Second, Arabs and Muslims are so routinely discriminated against, and racially profiled (notoriously at airports), that seeing that one of us gets to make it in spite of being Muslim and Arab is another welcome relief. Now, the fact that the accomplishment had nothing to do with her intelligence, character or personal skills, but rather with her…huh… yeah, the entire combo, and that it entailed no other skill than to know how to undress herself with class, all this can be ignored because, hey, how often does an Arab Muslim get to represent America anyway? So what she gets to represent America for (the commercialization of women’s bodies) can be ignored as well.
Third, Arabs and Muslims are always being accused of not integrating properly into mainstream Western culture. We hold lectures, forums and conferences where we speak of fostering viable, confident and constructive identities where our Islam and our Americanness/Frenchness/Germanness/etc are not mutually exclusive. The process involves hiccups, but we try. And along comes Rima Fakih, and she gets to be subjected to the same exploitative enterprises some white Christian women get subjected to, and its is oh-so-tempting to say, see? We are integrated! We can be Muslim and get to do the things other Americans do! We also get to have our bodies paraded like horses on expensive Vegas casinos! Hurray! Except, of course, that when this happens, women like Rima who agree to appear in tiny bikinis are cast as the progressive ones (CNN actually used this word), while those of us who cover are contrasted with these beacons of progress, in hopes that one day we see the light as well, and shed off our scarves, and while at it, perhaps all the rest as well (this is not an exaggeration, “why see the naked body in a negative light?”).
Oh, but all this said, who can avoid rejoicing at seeing conservatives’ blogs vent their anger about Rima’s victory? Some have associated her victory with Hezbollah’s infiltration into American soil. Others have warned Americans about Rima’s “extremist and deadly ties .” Others have claimed that the contest is rigged, and that it favors under-represented groups at the expense of fairness. Why, even seeing brunettes beat blondes is a “score!” But truth be told, indulging in these little pleasures does not compensate for the horror scenario that young American Muslim girls may come to see Rima as a role model. The message they will receive will certainly be “you too can make it,” but if Rima’s success is the standard, the measurement for success will be sought in all the wrong places.
So all things said, it seems clear that luring though Rima’s victory is, reservations cannot be relegated to a mere parenthesis. Rejoicing in her victory simply suggests that as Muslims in our respective Western countries, we have set the bar quite low. It may serve us well to remember the values we uphold, such as modesty and self-respect, and equally important, to bear in mind that that which we validate with our support today will likely be reproduced tomorrow. So what kind of successes do we want our younger generations to strive for? In what realms of public life do we want to succeed as Muslim Western women? And on whose terms?
Janan Delgado is an Ecuadorian Muslim woman, with a B.A in Political Science from the American University in Cairo, and an M.A in Near Eastern Studies from New York University. Born and raised in Quito, Janan moved to Cairo at age 18, and she currently resides in NYC.