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 Altmuslimah.com 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, mojointhemorning.com 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