Does Rima Fakih represent Muslims in America?

The crowning of Ms. Rima Fakih, 24, as Miss USA 2010 on May 16, brought forth a mixed reaction from Arab and Muslim communities across the globe. Facebook and Twitter erupted with a barrage of updates, from declaring a victory for Arabs in America, to completely opposite reactions lamenting the inappropriate and inaccurate representation of Muslim women in mainstream America.
New York City-based comedian Aman Ali summed up on his Facebook status what was probably on most peoples’ minds, “This is the first time I’ve seen an Arab get selected for something… and it wasn’t random.”

With this perspective, it’s no wonder that some people like Imad Hamad, regional director of the American- Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee, are dancing the victory dance – heralding a news story about an Arab that has nothing to do with terror plots, airplanes, or burqas. “This shows the greatness of America, how everyone can have a chance to make it.” At last, a front-page item where an Arab-American is being praised-a positive light at the end a long, dark, and difficult tunnel.

Others express relief, considering nearly the decade of stereotypical images that have bombarded television and laptop screens. Fatemeh Fakhraie, Contributing Editor at writes in her blog, “…Beauty pageants = gross. There’s not just a history of sexism, but also of exploitation, exclusion, and racism within American beauty pageants…But I am incredibly excited that there is another female face of Islam in the mainstream media… She doesn’t look like the war-torn women of Iraq or Afghanistan–representations in the media that Americans are used to seeing.”

Fakih is reported to have said that her family observes both Muslim and Christian faiths. Now on record about her Muslim roots and identity, a major question arises in the minds of Muslims around the country: Does she represent us?

The Miss USA competition consists of three parts- swimsuit, evening gown, and interview competition. For Fakih to almost bear it all in the swimsuit portion automatically drives some Muslims to distance themselves from her, saying that she cannot be a model for Muslim women to follow and celebrate, as she chooses to be judged for her sex appeal. A skeptical Facebooker David Williams, “Where Muhammad (Peace Be Upon him) has said Haya (modesty) is from Iman (belief), can we really say that the loss of Haya is a win for Muslims? … I can’t understand why people, Muslims in particular, would be “proud” to see something like that.” Another rather disappointed Facebooker Narmin Nuru was quick to predict the usual conclusions that people will draw as a result of Fakih’s win, “[She is] on a stage judged by a group of men on her sexual appeal, and they would probably call her the most liberated Arab or Muslim…”

Juxtapose this win with the burqa ban in Belgium and the continuing movements in France and the Netherlands, and it appears we have before us a thought-provoking deal: the mighty West offering the beautiful Rima Fakih-Arab, Muslim, and thus “open-minded,” as an alternative to the burqa-wearing woman, who appears to signify terrorism and backwardness.

Does Fakih’s association with both Muslim and Christian traditions automatically make her a representative of Islam in the way that Muslims want her to represent it? Is there any sign of her making an active decision to be the “go-to” person for Islam 101?

Maybe it’s too late for that, considering Fakih’s past participation and victory in a stripping contest sponsored by a Detroit radio show, in 2007. For those on the fence about this whole controversy, this may have been the impetus to abandon the idea that Fakih might be representing Islamic ideals.

Then there is the third group shouting, “Who really cares about beauty pageants?” After all, there are bigger problems in the world. Because of the other issues associated with pageants like the overall perception of women, as well as racism and sexism mentioned above by Fakhraie, this group has a bigger, more united following. In the larger scheme of things, Fakih’s induction into the Miss USA dynasty could aptly place her on the shelf right next to other gifts from the Arab world: belly-dancing, shawerma, hookah, and camels. Okay, maybe not camels.

In the great “ethnic timeline” that marks America’s growing pains with each new group that makes its way to the land of the great melting pot, Rima Fakih’s triumph as Miss USA 2010 marks a milestone, perhaps not as the first Arab-American Miss USA (records are not clear), or as the new face of diversity, but as a person who really can’t be boxed into any category. Fakih’s win possibly suggests that not every person represents an entire group of people- that there is uniqueness, nuance, and imperfection- and that no one group can claim the individual narrative of Rima Fakih.
Shazia Kamal is a mocha-colored writer, activist, and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently working for the United States Census Bureau and resides in Los Angeles, California


  • tlen says:

    Sadly, Ms. Fakih win had more to do with political correctness. Second runner up, Ms Oklahoma was given a heated political question and gave a great answer—only the Latino judge didn’t appreciate her answer.
    Meanwhile not only did Ms. Rakih stumble in her gown, she also ‘stumbled’ on her answer by calling birth control a “controlled substance.”  It doesn’t take away from the fact that Ms. Fakih is a lovely woman, but so was the runner-up. Fakih’s win was nothing more than political correctness—the modern ‘plague’ of the West.

  • milkweed says:

    It’s so clear that significance of this “win” is to show the kind of Muslims that ARE acceptable—

    The “Good Muslim” is the one:

    who will oblige the public interest and get naked already so they can see what you so rudely insist on covering up

    who are “spiritual… liberal” … not religious (honestly, they have no problem with Muslims aside from that whole Islam thing…)

    who will get it together and celebrate Christmas like any other redblooded American (not insisting on these bizarre holidays no-one can even pronounce)

    who “come from a Muslim background” – a faded thing long past, forgiveable – with no links to any Muslim present, or future

    – –

    Truly I have no grudge against Rima Fakih – she is responsible to Allah for her choices as am I.

    What I find ominous is to see Muslims crowing about a victory for our community – for a Muslim whose “favorite holiday” is Christmas

  • Khaalidah says:

    I am not an Arab, but I am a Muslim.
    I find this entire issue disturbing.
    Firstly, that any Muslim would cheer on this young woman for what amounts to self-degradation and self-exploitation and a violation of the laws of Allah is disturbing to say the least.  Any contest that requires women to parade herself in public half dressed for the world to judge is assinine and a travesty in 2010.
    Since when has it become important to us (Muslims) that the world of unbelievers, people who are not qualified to determine right and wrong for us, accept our beauty?  Since when do we buy into Western concepts of beauty as opposed to defining it for ourselves?

    Secondly, this display of tribalism/patriotism among the Arab community is disturbing, particularly from the Muslim side as this too is haram.  In Islam there is no separation based on country of origin, or language, or color of skin…we are ONE MUSLIM BODY.  As such, why would a single one of us be please to see that not only has one of our girls been exploited by a hyper-sexual society, but some of us seem to like it, and even worse, she does too.

    Some of the more racist media have tried to say that this was some type of affirmative action win.  If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might say that this so-called win is no different than the idea that drugs are funneled by the powers that be into the African-American community, to keep them from succeeding.  Perhaps this was a way to show that our girls aren’t all that special…and considering this so-called win, who could prove them wrong?

    Aoozu billahi.

  • tlen says:

    “Some of the more racist media have tried to say that this was some type of affirmative action win.  If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might say that this so-called win is no different than the idea that drugs are funneled by the powers that be into the African-American community, to keep them from succeeding.”

    Where have you been? It’s been proven time and again that drugs are funneled into the black community by the “powers that be” -how else do you think the drugs get there from millions of miles away in Columbia(cocaine/crack) and Afghanistan(heroin)?
    And Fakih’s win was absolutely an Afirmative Action win, but you would have to be up-to-date on American politics to understand it.

  • Khaalidah says:

    You are assuming that I am not up to date.

    Yes, I know that drugs don’t reach the African American community “by mistake”, I was simply equating this so-called win with the unhappy truth.

    As for her win being an affirmative action win?  I’d venture to say not. Ms. Fakih isn’t far enough from the vision of mainstream Western beauty concepts to qualify as “an other”.  As for the fact that she is Muslim…no one would have guessed this had the more racist bigoted elements not started trying to link her and her family to “terrorist” organizations and “extremists”.  Although, how they could have ever come up with that is beyond me considering the fact that she’s as secular as a Barbie Doll can get.

  • OmarG says:

    We are a community of faith and principles, not of ethnicity or race. We are what we *do* not who we are, who our families / tribes are, where we come from nor if our name “sounds” Muslim. She would thus represent Arab-Americans, but not Muslim-Americans because parading women in pageants is simply not a part of our PRINCIPLES or spiritual ethics.

  • zulu2 says:

    No talking on my behalf but I will let fareed talk. Excellent points and well said!!! (from another blog…had to put it out there)

    With a straight face: yes – it is a positive image. There are many who are ???grasping onto the hot coal of their faith??? following many of the tenets that Miss Fakih may not seem to follow, and smearing their religion in hostility to anything that does not look like them, sometimes to the point of violence. Miss Fakih was not lured into some hoax to display her charms, and she is certainly not owned by the others who share her religion. She is being herself, and that too without harming anyone else. I would venture to say- and it should not be much of a stretch – that having a Muslim win a Miss USA pageant, which, other than obvious beauty, rewards affability, charm, and diplomacy in nature, is a better, more positive image than the daily images on CNN. Can you deny that with a straight face?

    Moreover, she has been selected to represent the United States in one aspect. No, it???s not the most powerful, and not the most sought-after (which would be either the American presidency, or American Idol at this point) but it a celebration-worthy statement that has been made – that Muslim and American are not mutually exclusive, and that, further, they are even symbiotic.

    Whatever your personal beliefs and boundaries on the issue of women???s charms and their display, can you refute, with any real evidence, that this woman???s title has changed for a vast majority of the national audience, their concept Muslim? Their concept of American? Has it not widened both of those boxes? While Moral Sense may desire to refuse any reward for someone who goes against one???s code of right and wrong, Common Sense wins out: we cannot deny such an elementary admission that the occassion of Miss Fakih???s selection has widened the American perspective.

    That said, Would I seek the same title? No, but that is my choice. I don???t eat meat on principle, but I will hardly condemn a Muslim who wins Top Chef with a filet mignon dish. People have different boundaries and different aspirations. A religion such as Islam that is a deep-rooted presence in the jugular veins of over 1 billion people worldwide can hardly be anything but personal, private, and fundamentally individual. So too is one???s interaction with that religion likewise an individual, personal, private relationship.

    My objection stands on three points:
    – Judging someone???s faith and claiming to read their what???s in their hearts is reserved for beings higher than you or me. Faith is not for us to judge.
    – Denigrating a woman for not conforming to one???s personal standard of lifestyle and in such a crass tone (not you, Majid786; referring to the other comment) is a disposition unworthy of being carried out in the name of Islam. Have some respect.
    – The paralysis of common sense is evident in those who so myopically cling to their morals that they refuse to even admit (even if they won???t celebrate) that this event has widened the American perspective of Muslim, American, and Muslim-American.

    I stand by what I said.

  • Saadia says:

    I’m also not thinking about whether she represents everyone’s self-image or way of dressing. But I wonder how much it has to do with the trend towards camel-jockeying?

    If you look at her pageant photos, her differences make her stand out – which is something different people can relate, even if they wear veils, and even if they aren’t Muslim.

    So if you look at the positive aspect, it becomes reason to not text everyone else about the threat you’ve detected and what she is wearing.

  • Khaalidah says:

    We don’t have to pass judgment on Ms. Fakih.  We don’t have to even guess at her state of Islam.  It is clear.

    Certainly, only Allah knows what is in a person’s heart, but if God were foremost in Ms. Fakih’s heart she would not have made herself a slave to a pageant that in no way embodies the code of conduct set down by Allah.

    For zulu:
    Ms. Fakih has in no way made any positive gains regarding Muslim acceptance in America.  She sold out by agreeing to conform to the unrealistic and degrading pulls of this society.  Real acceptance means that you are accepted despite the fact that you maintain your faith and priciples, as well as your personal code of ethics.  Let me put it this way, even if I weren’t a Muslim (and I will always be) in no way would I applaud any woman who submitted herself to the exploitive institution of a pageant.  How can a woman hope to be taken seriously, based on her intellectual merits when she agrees to parade herself around naked for the world to see. 

    “I would venture to say- and it should not be much of a stretch – that having a Muslim win a Miss USA pageant, which, other than obvious beauty, rewards affability, charm, and diplomacy in nature, is a better, more positive image than the daily images on CNN. Can you deny that with a straight face? ”

    The answer to that is a resounding: Yes I can deny that.

    Are you kidding?  In the very near future, no one will remember how charming, diplomatic, intelligent, or affable Ms. Fakih is.  They will however, remember what she looked like in her bikini, that she stumbled in her gown, the color of her gown…  With a straight face?: Ms. Fakih allowed herself to be reduced to a brainless body.  She may be more than that, but who could tell, and who will remember?

    How she chooses to practice her faith is her business and solely between her and Allah, but unlike with other religions, for Muslims the laws are plain and clear and she is in obvious error.

  • mez4prez says:

    Is Rima Fakih really the only Arab-American representing the rest of us Arabs AND Muslims around the world? She is one of MANY Arab/Muslims representing us and unfortunately is not a really great model at that. Yes the whole fact that pageants are degrading is an issue but the bigger issue here is that American’s chose her because they want to create a new identity for Muslim women that includes them into their societal perceptions, ie- Bikini’s, stripper competitions, celebrating Christmas, etc. They’re trying to “save” Muslim women pretty much saying, “there is another option”. Yeah, I know there are other options but what you (America and the West) don’t seem to get is that I chose to be this way. Its sad that people don’t see the hidden agenda behind all this, because lets not forget that Tony Shaloub is an Arab-American actor, Alexander Siddig also an actor, Vince Vaughn has arab roots and so does Jerry Seinfeld, just a few names of a long list of famous Arab-Americans some of which are also Muslim.

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