Tahmena Bokhari is a Muslim, a Canadian, a feminist, a social worker, an educator and holds the title Mrs. Pakistan 2010 (not to be confused with Miss Pakistan World). Bokhari’s accomplishments are as varied as they are impressive, and perhaps seem contradictory to many. She holds a Master’s degree in social work and has worked at a number of women’s shelters and on a series of humanitarian initiatives. She currently teaches social work at two different colleges, and also acts as a diversity consultant, all the while competing in beauty pageants.
The media seems to enjoy highlighting what it perceives as Bokhari’s seemingly incongruous identities. A Toronto Star article leads with the following:
Tahmena Bokhari is Mrs. Pakistan 2010. She was crowned in a Mississauga motel in December. The Canadian Muslim is also a diehard feminist. Get your head around all that. “It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?” she says from the couch in her family’s spacious Woodbridge home.
Similarly, an article profiling Bokhari which appeared in her community newspaper refers to her in the headline as “A World of Contradictions,” and proceeds to enumerate these co-called inconsistencies in her identity:
She’s Canadian, but Pakistani. She’s Muslim, but also a feminist. She is a Seneca College professor, a social activist, married and, to top it all off, Mrs. Pakistan World.
Alright. We concede that in mainstream media beauty queens are not usually associated with feminism, Islam is not typically identified with feminism or beauty pageants, and one would assume that a competition titled “Mrs. Pakistan” would take place in Pakistan, not Canada. So yes, there are certainly apparent contradictions – or, at least, surprises – in all of the labels Bokhari carries.
However, the heavy handed focus on the supposed discrepancies (emphasized by both journalists and, at times, by Bokhari herself) begins to resemble the unhelpful “Wow! Look at those Muslim women breaking stereotypes!” trope. Such focus reinforces existing stereotypes by pointing to the fact that this woman, with all her seemingly conflicting identities, is a contradiction, and she is the anomaly that she is because of her exceptional nature and ambition. We can then let ourselves off the hook and leave our prejudices unexamined.
And even if Bokhari truly does embody an unexpected combination of qualities, we, as human beings, are by definition complex beings who carry multiple identities. The repeated “but” in the local newspaper article ignores the fact that there are thousands of people who are Canadian and Pakistani, and even more who are Muslim and feminist. We should not assume these characteristics to preclude each other.
In contrast to the above mentioned articles, a Change.Org blog does a much better job of toning down the sensationalism, and accepting the multiple facets of Bokhari’s identity. It begins with an acknowledgement that “women don’t have to fit into neat little role boxes,” and that “Bokhari refreshingly sees continuity between being a Muslim, a feminist, a beauty queen, an activist, a scholar, a consultant, a writer, and an advocate for contesting the media’s portrayals of Muslims, Islam, and women.” The article suggests that attempts to pigeonhole women into categories is something to be overcome. Neither the media nor the public should view stereotypes as neutral realities to be overcome only by the exceptional few. The writer concludes with:
What a concept: beauty doesn’t have to exclude intelligence, feminism doesn’t have to exclude Islam, passionate work and activism don’t have to trump family life, sexuality, and cultural ties. Women can embody all of these things without having to slap any particular label on their foreheads. Liberation, indeed.
This writer demonstrates, at the very least, we can celebrate a person’s accomplishments without reinforcing the stereotypes which make the person’s achievements appear unlikely. We can even take our celebration one step further by delving deeper and scrutinizing the systems and structures which lead people to see the person as a contradiction or as an exception to an unexamined rule.
Krista Riley is a graduate student in sociology and equity studies, currently living in Toronto. An unedited version of this piece was previously published at Muslimah Media Watch.