Miss USA 2010, It’s complicated

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.


  • Enith says:

    MashaAllah Janan.  JAK for your insightful article.

    I, for one, was wondering the same thing. Will Rima’s undiclosed salary be used to sponsor, let’s say, the first of its kind Stripping Academy for Muslim girls?  No doubt we can’t see into Rima’s heart and judge her faith.  But we sure can see almost everything else about her.

    Muslims are indeed a diverse crowd ranging in their interpretations and practices of Islam. However, our principles do hold a common ground: Modesty is part of faith.

    Perhaps she found a way to pole dance modestly? Grrrrrr

  • Ghela says:

    Totally loved this article Janan … MashAllah to see you writing here as I am a fan of your blogs ….

    The first thing that came to my mind when I watched the news yesterday morning was how hard it is for Muslim/ Arab women to get their voices heard by people (since most of them presume we can’t articulate 2 sentences)even worst have our voice being heard in a non-muslim environment where even when we scream we are often ignored and our accomplishments belittled. In my head all I wanted to know was what was her reaction when she won… Really? Pizza? I kept telling myself that can’t be right…

  • katseye says:

    @akt-we can take samples of muslims from all over the world. many of those samples would contain ingredients that i do not relate to-terrorism or beauty contestant or politicians or extreme liberalism/conservatism or heroin smugglers or pimps/prostitutes, etc. it doesn’t mean that they do not or cannot identify themselves as muslims.

    we do not have the right to bare judgement on what is “muslim” enough. allah alam what this child holds in her heart and it’s not for us to decide. that’s for the creator to decide.

  • katseye says:

    Thanks Janan for a wonderful article! I’m not really interested in her faith, if anything, it’s nothing more than an issue that the media holds on to. It tells us-hey Muslim/Arab young women-look you have a role model with Rima who’s not covered, is pretty, and is not afraid to show her “frisky” side.

    But she’s not the only one. A couple of years ago, an Afghan refugee was Miss Germany and an Iranian immigrant was Miss Canada. Miss England is an Afghan refugee. Plus all of the contestants world wide who participate in this garbage. It’s sickening.

  • aktharm1 says:

    Mash Allah,

    Very nice article, extremely well written.

    Why does the media just assume she is Muslim, and keep on bringing it up?  Rima is not a Muslim-look at all that she is doing, is the Islam? No.

  • OmarG says:

    >>an Arab Muslim woman and self-declared feminist,

    That’s because Arab nationalism trumps religion, ethics, common-sense and pretty much everything else. I don’t get those vibes from Muslims from other places, though; weird.

  • OmarG says:

    @alija: Yes, we have lost sight of ourselves but harkening back to pre-modern traditions which were cultural and have nothing to do with Quranic and Prophetic ethics and behaviors will get us nowhere. “Khilaafah”: don’t get me started. No centralized and arbitrary kingship for me, thank you very much.

  • OmarG says:

    Also, a good eye-opener is to ask the cheerleading Muslims, “When will you compete in a pageant, then?” and for the males, “So when will you get your wife/daughter/mother/sisters to compete!?” The level of hypocrisy may amaze you.

  • Janand says:

    thank you all for your encouraging feedback!

    Just a couple of things. First, Rima’s religiosity is not what is at issue here. To be fair, she has not claimed to represent Islam and Muslims. As far as I know, she simply said she was Muslim, and while many of us can disagree with her actions, I think we all know better than to question someone’s faith based on his/her actions (please note the difference, questioning the desirability of having a particular person represent Muslims (sometimes in spite of him/herself) is quite different than questioning their Islam).

    So what is at issue in this article is what we, Arab-Americans, Western Muslims, or American Muslims in particular make of this event, and what it means to us…

    and at OmarG, thanks for your comment, but actually, the girl who posted that status has not claimed to be an Arab nationalist. She is simply an Arab, an American, a Muslim and a feminist.

  • katseye says:

    @omar-maybe we should encourage them to participate in saudi’s miss beautiful morals-you know because saudi arabia in the representative of all things moral.

    personally, i cannot wait to see rimah fakih battle it out against miss france malika menard for the miss world/universe title.

  • Alija786 says:

    Thank you Janan Delgado, for this balanced perspective. 

    I doubt many Muslims shouting in glee or posting self-congratulatory notes on Facebook , Twitter etc for Rima, will have a mind and heart open enough to accept these insights. 

    Would Rima herself read this article and take pause to think about what she’s done? 

    I think you might’ve fared better in following your urge to write a trenchant reminder.  These are times of serious confusion and utter Muslim disconnectedness.  Most of us no longer have the patience to read, reflect or reevaluate what our lifestyles are.  Yet I pray that more people read what you wrote here.

  • alaa says:

    Re: your article, I actually agree with most of your thoughts, and would’ve loved if our daughters had aspired to be the first arab american female astronaut/senator/ etc. not necessarily a beauty queen. Having said all that, like you said, any -non terrorist- press is better than no press,

    I think. Also, although I disagree with the word “progressive” to describe the situation, I’m not sure that having Rima in the spot light relegates muhajjabat to the oppressed category. Rather, maybe if the West realizes that muslim/arab women DO have a choice to wear a bikini, that same element of choice operates in the choice of hijab? Like the guardian article said, it’s not about representing us, but it’s about showing that we range from burqa to bikini, for better or worse. just like the U.S ranges from atheist to evengelical.

    Re: above comments, I’m stunned at how many commentators were quick to judge her Islam. Yes, modesty is part of Islam. But I think choice is the one thing that arab/muslims still struggle with, this woman CHOOSES to identify as muslim, who’s busuiness is it to take it away from her? naked or not? I slam is not restricted to devout people. the prophet didn’t take the title from drinkers, fornicators, or even munafikeen and it actually angered me to see some of those comments. Why aren’t we as quick to kick out bin laden out of islam but we want to kick her out?

  • Alija786 says:

    To alaa:

    I don’t think the “any non-terrorist press is better than no press” position holds water.  Islamophobia is the norm, we are always in the press, directly or indirectly whether we like it or not!  On a fundamental level, the reason why we get so much bad press is because we have abandoned who we are. 

    Within our own social circles we are embarassed at, or abandon those who overtly express any semblance of Islamic traditions and culture – be it turbans in the public sphere, qawwalis, celebrating Mawlid-e-Nabi, etc.  We have lost our individual AND collective sense of ourselves as Muslims.  Worse than this, we take no pains to reclaim it, NOR do we value this endeavor.

    In its place, we are more content to formulate post-modern expressions and multiple identities as ethnic-Muslims, carving out a place for ourselves in the melting pot, much like Yahudis, Hispanics and all other competing minorities do in America.

    I don’t think what is at stake is upholding the right to wear a bikini or a hijab.  From Jeddah and Kabul to Istanbul and Dearborne, Muslim women are wearing whatever they wish.  So, why make efforts to ‘defend the right’ to wear what they want, what is our intention in doing so?  To stick it to the “conservatives” amongst us? To appear pluralistic or fair-minded to a world that demands Muslims be more “nuanced and moderate”?  Or to the part of our selves which has swallowed that paradigm wholesale?

    Let us remember that, had there been a Muslim khalifat today, Osama Bin Laden would have been severely dealt with as the ignorant murderer he is.  Let us also realize that it is not a pipe-dream. 

    No, Islam is not “restricted” to the devout, but at least Muslims should know where the compass is directing us, and love the Beloved one who set that compass.

    If we don’t, we lose the most precious possession.

  • maryambintlh says:

    What is this world coming to?

    We really need to set our priorities straight.

    How about a FB campaign (long over due) to enlist Alice & Christy Walton, Jackie Mars, ‘n Martha Stewart to finance, produce, & design a Mr. America pageant?

    Just imagine;

    All ethnic, religious/non-religious beefcakes may apply.

    Speedo competitions

    Talent competitions
    (Who can change a flat tire the fastest…Best BBQ…)

    Best dressed tux walking the pirate plank competition
    (W/Johnny Depp as one of the judges of course.)

    Questions from the ‘Thoughtful Round,’ may include;

    1. Do you feel you have been MANipulated to compete in this competition?

    2. Would you encourage or discourage male relatives to follow in your footsteps?

    3. What does a man of substance mean to you?

    Dude babes, ya’all best get to working on those 6 packs.

    Janan, great article. Much appreciated from this ole con broad.

  • MamRiad says:

    Assalamu alaikum. Could not resist reading Janan Delgado’s article on Miss America and all the comments generated by it from others. I have a rather direct comment of my own to “some” of those comments. To be a Muslim requires from us to accept the guidance of the Qur’an in totality as well as the affirmed teachings of our Prophet (sAaws).  If this is the case for us as Muslims, shouldn’t we then return to our guidance before making a point has to do with Islam? Stating opinions contradicting and conflicting to our guidance makes a person wonder what are the basis of such comments, is it whims or faith? If it is whims, then you can utter anything without a guidance but be careful to claim it as part of Islam. Islam is bound towards our guidance, is bonded to it and based on it. It is solid and clear. What is 7aram is 7aram and what is 7alal is 7alal. If we got confused between the two, we can search for true knowledge. We as individuals, might sin in one way or another but Allah gave us the mercy of asking for forgiveness and the chance to correct the wrong.
    The difference between doing so and between trying to change Allah’s guidance to suit our whims is vast. Don’t cross this vast gap and guard your faith.

  • Janand says:

    To Zulu2, “Anyway, I look at this as a positive accomplishment that we have a woman who at least challenged an establishment.”

    Just out of curiosity, what is the purpose of “challenging establishments,”? or should they just be challenged for the sake of it? Is breaking norms a value in itself? Because you either claim that this particular norm (Muslim modesty in clothing)should be challenged (in which case I’d assume this is your opinion, and that is that), or you claim the latter; that challenging establishments, for the mere sake of it, holds value in itself (in which case I’d be interested in knowing where this idea, or value, came from, and why it should be celebrated by Muslims).

  • OmarG says:

    I think some establishment poking is a good thing; too much is just too much, though. Establishments often wear out due to entropy, being slowly captured by special interests, and end up as a corrupt elite out of touch with the needs of those they ought to serve or benefit.

    Too many Muslims are sheeple who could not lead a mouse to cheese and too many back up their timidity and ineffectualness by saying “Its fitna!”. Its a distinctive Eastern trait that ought to have no place in a Free Speech, Liberal Republic, so I personally would like to see more Muslims standing up for Right and not just meekly conceding to Wrong. Their whole society back home does it which is exactly why they flee to our country, so why replicate the same failure-producing behaviors in a new land??

  • zulu2 says:

    Congratulation to her. For those whose bash her or judge her you should ask yourself would you every like someone to telling you that you are not a muslim? I don’t judge peoples’ faith and I would not verbally say such a thing. It’s silly to say something like that. Your religion is personal and it should be left that way. It’s funny how some quickly judge her for her modesty(err… inflammatory bikini) and claim that she is not a muslim. Silly. At same time we have an individual by the name of Bin Laden who is killing innocent individuals yet he is still referred to as a muslim. Is this guy a muslim? Hmmm people just amaze me with their thinking.

    Anyway, I look at this as a positive accomplishment that we have a woman who at least challenged an establishment. Now it is for others to challenge other establishments and hopefully others will follow. Personally, I am waitng for the first muslim to sit on the supreme court!! It’s call challenge guys.

  • zulu2 says:

    I did not mean religious establishment but more of societal establishment. I’m not into people’s religious business. Go out and venture!! OmarG hit my point…..“timidity and ineffectualness”!! Just some hold back out of fear of being judgded harshly when there’s no need to hold back.

  • jungefrau says:

    Are Lebanese people Arab? I thought Arabs were people descended from the Arabian peninsula whereas the Turks, Lebanese, Syrians, Persians, etc., were descended from people who had lived there for thousands of years. Is she considered Arab because Lebanese people speak Arabic? My Jordanian friend would punch someone for calling her Arab.

  • Janand says:

    “she [Rima Fakih] and her sister said the family celebrates both Muslim and Christian faiths and prefer to be referred to as Lebanese, Arabs or Arab-Americans.”


  • jungefrau says:

    That makes sense. I’ll be so glad when we move beyond the whole ethnicity thing, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

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