The fact that a Muslim woman won Miss USA 2010 is a step forward – a small and contentious one, but a step nonetheless
Beauty pageants are plastic and degrading for all of the run-of-the-mill feminist reasons: the history of racism and exploitation in pageants, those impossible beauty ideals, and the overwhelming sense that it’s all being orchestrated for the titillation of a primarily male audience.
So imagine my surprise when I, a Muslim feminist, heard that Rima Fakih, a Michigan-based Lebanese-American Muslim woman, won this year’s Miss USA contest last Sunday in Las Vegas. Did her win change all the rules overnight just because she’s Arab and Muslim?
Not exactly. Let’s not downplay the fact that Fakih’s crown represents sexist ideals and expectations. Her victory is not a real one for Muslim women or Arab-American women, in that it does not necessarily do anything to advance rights for either group.
But there are reasons to welcome Fakih’s victory. Her win is another victory over the white beauty ideal (even if it doesn’t chip away at other beauty standards like thinness or light skin). The Miss USA winners of the last 10 years represent a varied racial mix of whites, Latinos, and African Americans, and Fakih adds to this diversity.
The backlash has already begun, but Fakih’s win is a (tiny) reinforcement of the Muslim American presence in this country. It reminds America that even though a Faisal Shahzad pops up every now and then, the majority of us are just living and working Americans like Rima Fakih. As Janan Delgado states in her own ambivalent reflections on Fakih’s win, “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.”
Fakih comes from a Shia Muslim Lebanese family. She is a face of Muslim Americans that most Americans are not used to seeing. As someone who sees American Muslim women almost always represented one-dimensionally as victims in headscarves, it’s kind of refreshing to see something else. To squabble over whether she should represent Muslim women because she has danced with a stripper pole and won a beauty contest feels preachy and slut-shaming. She doesn’t have to represent Muslims in general or Muslim women in particular – she’s just part of the Muslim American cornucopia.
Although Fakih has won the Miss USA crown, she’ll never win everybody over. American conservatives are foaming at the mouth about her spurious connections to Hezbollah, and many feminists are disapproving of her win because it came from another sexist doll factory. Women like Fakih face double trouble when they achieve any type of success: she’s a win for Arab-Americans, but a loss for women in general. She represents the diverse facets of Muslim Americana, but she also represents the impossible cultural standards that women in this country are supposed to live up to.
But why throw the beauty queen out with the bath water? Instead of bristling at the entire pageant process and the chatter about whether her win is a one for Muslims or not, we can just be happy that an immigrant Shia woman from Lebanon grew up to win Miss USA.
Fatemeh Fakhraie is Contributing Editor to Altmuslimah. This piece was originally published in the Guardian.