First Arab American to be Miss USA. Billionth woman to be exploited.

Today my text and email inboxes, Facebook newsfeed, and Twitterfeed are filled with the eerily but understandably similar subject line reading “First Arab-American Crowned Miss USA!”

My gut reaction?

Wait, why are people I associate myself with aware of who’s been crowned Miss USA?

My second gut reaction?


Maybe it’s just me – but big freaking deal? I realize that many people (most of whom I seem to associated with. Note to self: filter friends lists everywhere) are like totally whoa’d that an ARAB (Muslim, Lebanese, from [surprise, surprise] Michigan) was given the glorious patriotic crown which also acts as a ticket to the disgustingly hyperbolic Miss Universe, but ..seriously guys?

Are we seriously going to be so stoked about the meaning of this “historic” event for young, Muslim, Arab women everywhere and what it means to have a Lebanese represent the US at the Miss Universe pageant? Are we seriously pulling another Obama here?

She’s beautiful and she’s a breathtaking change from the usual Barbies who sparkle away the crown every single year. But when are we going to stop with the two-fold superficiality? First off – we still continue to judge the progression or digression of a society, its ethos and its mores by the appearance of its women. For instance – the niqab bans around the world, specifically in Europe and Quebec, are indicative of a lot of things but they are especially resonant of an age old bad habit of the human race to use the woman as the standard for judgement. As for Rima Fakih winning the Miss USA crown – we’re doing the same thing, albeit in a very different way and certainly not to the same extreme extent. We’re getting excited that someone “like us,” someone who is part of a “minority” group, which has been consistently under severe ‘popular’ and very public scrutiny, is actually going to not only represent the US – beacon of Mattel freedom – at the Miss Universe pageant, but also represents a very public appraisal of someone who does not look like the ‘mainstream’ woman – blonde and lacking in the got-enough-curve department.

But let us not really exonerate ourselves from what we’re doing by even applauding this “historic” and “epic” and “holy crap” event. We are, in effect, applauding a sexist, chauvinist, exploitatively capitalistic and nationalist venture for accepting someone “like us.”

Thank you for exploiting our women, as well!

More so.

Beauty pageants – be they Jon-Benet Ramsey style kiddy shows or Donald Trump’s Miss USA empire – are inherently sexist and exploitative. Women are put upon a physical, literal pedestal and forced to perform – literally and figuratively to win superficial non-existent-outside-the-3-hour-show influence and some sparkly stuff, along with a title which probably still leaves the winner unfulfilled and as insecure as ever. Beauty pageants are plagued with eating disorders, a lack of an emphasis on character and intelligence, sexual harassment and grade A old-man-with-a-bad-hairdo creepiness. Sure, maybe some Muslim/Arab girls will be all “word” about the fact that someone who is “like them” just won this disturbingly prestigious title, but the negatives heavily outweigh the positives (if any). Beauty pageants promote women as empty vessels, meant for decoration. Everything about these women is perfectly managed, perfectly whitened, perfectly tightened and perfectly choreographed. They do not represent “real” women anywhere. They represent exactly what persists to be a problem in our society – where a woman’s achievement (especially if she is an ethnic/religious minority) in an arena that judges her on her physical is considered far more significant than her achievement in anything political, cultural, literary, social, etc.

Dalia Mogahed’s appointment by President Obama as an advisor on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships inspired me a great deal more (especially as someone who is visibly Muslim) than someone winning a beauty pageant. Why wasn’t there more of a ‘historic’ fuss about that?

Funny thing is, however, that when Mogahed was appointed her advisory position – she was referred to as a ‘veiled Muslim woman’. Her physical appearance, as a muhajjiba, remained at the forefront of the public discussion of her appointment. Very rarely were her credentials discussed, beyond a superfluous level. We’re just so stuck on the physical appearance of a woman – why is she covered or why is she not covered enough?

But, hey, congrats nevertheless I suppose. This historic instance of equal exploitation shows us that we really are entering a post-racial United States of America.
Sana Saeed is a freelance writer based in Montreal and Vancouver.

(Photo Credit: Tim Kretchmann)


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