Muslim Miss Universe? The Identity Crisis Of Muslim Pageants

By Zaufishan Iqbal – A British Muslim woman, Shanna Bukhari, entered the Miss Universe contest, triggering an onslaught of criticism, objection and death threats.

“Why, oh why, oh why?” is how I responded.

My first why? is towards the Miss Universe contest itself. A beauty pageant at its core is a misogynistic event. Yes, yes, the pro-fashion-industry-agents will raise their banners in defense of female empowerment, but people, wake up. A beauty pageant does not elevate women, it perpetuates a European-Western female beauty standard based on how men wish to perceive women. It’s not healthy for women let alone what it does for men.

This is no IQ test. It’s not about intellect, contribution to community, a woman’s roles or skills. It’s all about looks. I don’t want our children growing up in an environment where that standard is what they aspire towards, but here’s the thing: I’m not going to start bashing Bukhari for entering the contest. She has her own conscience.

But then why? do I hear agitated questions in my mind such as, “How dare a Muslim woman enter a shallow competition? And, does she represent Islam or Britain or Pakistan?”

Here’s the reality. We live in British society, not a village in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. We live in a country where, as British citizens, Freedom is made available to all. Some of us don’t like how others use freedom; some of us use it to our advantage.

We have the freedom to believe in God and live out that belief, or reject it entirely. We have the freedom to explore, experience and educate. And we have the freedom from prejudice.

So, we need to ask ourselves, is the beauty pageant illegal in Britain? No. Is it immoral? For some yes, for others, no. In Islamic tradition, beauty pageants do not exist, there is no merit for recognition solely by the outer appearance. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ defined real beauty saying,

“Allah does not look to your faces [bodies] and your wealth but He looks to your heart’s purity and to your deeds.” (Muslim, Book #32)

Let’s be honest here too, we are not really fussed by the contest as we are by knowing “one of our own” is participating. Most of the negative comments towards Bukhari came from Muslim men. Bukhari also attracted harsh criticism from feminists, oh, how I’ve missed their zealot feminising.

A sensitive case like this requires a sensible approach from Islam in dealing with the issue involved which is “Why should any woman enter such pageants?” Ah, there’s the crux of the problem.

Shanna Bukhari is entitled to define her own identity. If she doesn’t want to identify with Islam, and wants to identify as Pakistani or British or some combination, that’s her choice. The kind of reaction that people have given her is not going to make her rethink her identity. If anything, severe criticism is going to re-affirm the thought, “this is why I don’t identify as a Muslim woman”.

On the other hand, whether we agree with the contest or not (I do not agree, I repeat, I do not – underline and highlight), we do not have the Islamic right (haq) to threaten anyone with our point-of-view. We can simply not agree. But we do have an unfulfilled role as Muslims to at the very least, talk about these issues with understanding so that the correct and liberating Islamic perspectives can be unpeeled. Not many of us are willing to talk with decorum.

I also want to add here that the difference between understanding (fahm) and knowledge (`ilm) can be the difference between success and failure, especially when trying to solve problems in the real world.

Without understanding, we are merely machines spewing out information at emotional speeds hoping other machines will absorb and implement that knowledge. Is that how we interact? Why do we blatantly ignore real issues like the breakdown of Muslim marriages and neglect of Muslim women’s professionalism, but build hype over a beauty contest? Is it that important to us?

Islam’s position on the issue is clear, just like we know that taking drugs, sex before marriage, showing bad behavior to parents, eating pork, wearing revealing clothing are all forbidden in Islam. Despite this, many young muslims around us disregard Allah’s Laws in these issues and feel more comfortable in allowing the environment to shape our ideals, behaviors, likes, dislikes and the goals for which we strive for in life

In the complex world we live in today where people are juggling with different labels, Muslim, British, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Arab, these are the times when we can reflect upon our identity. Who am I? What shapes my values? How do I make my decisions in life? What is good? What is bad? Do I need to believe in something to have a good life? Is my identity defined by my place of Birth or by the origins of my parents homeland or my belief in Islam?

There are real issues we need to deal with. Muslims in the West need to turn their televisions off – they’ll keep churning out that distracting rubbish – get up and get involved.

Islam is not a religion of whiners and “haram police”, we are people of action who do. If we had spent less time complaining and more time doing, we’d see that a little nasiha was the only make-up required to win.


  1. Sheyna says:

    Great Article. Whoever this lady is, she has a right to do what she thinks is right. There is nothing wrong with her entering the contest, it is her intention that counts .We are no one to judge, only God can judge.

  2. Thank you @Ifti, Brother Dash, Salena and Ayeesha, for your feedback.

    @Ayeesha, I reiterate the final points of practical and though-out nasiha. When a person has a hole in their garment, we do not chastise them for showing skin. We help them find fabric and teach them to patch it up themselves. The more attention we give to that rip, the more significance it carries in the larger scheme of things.

    Like all news, this will fade away and we’ll find something new to disapprove. We also need to learn to put more importance on bringing the correct Islam forward rather than complaining about the infinite things that are wrong.


  3. I am really unsure why so much attention is giving to this news. I can understand why it may offend some people or their faiths – but surely the more attention given increase the debate and the argument for it increase too.

    Give it no attention and watch it dissolve like sugar in water.

  4. I found this interesting. Just wanted to touch on the point you made about how ‘muslim’ women identify here in the West. As an agnostic Brit-Bangladeshi I don’t identify as a muslim even though I have a ‘muslim sounding’ name,’ originate from a muslim-majority country and have practicing muslim parents. I feel strong attachment to Bengali culture and heritage but the Islamic religion means nothing to me. My thinking is, I have never personally converted to the Islamic religion so why should I let a distant ancestor’s decision to convert (thus turning the family ‘muslim’) give me a default religion if I never chose it. I don’t believe religion is inherited automatically from parent to child and there is no genetic basis for it (i.e. there’s no such thing as a muslim gene/DNA that children inherit from their muslim parents), so I don’t see myself as a ‘born Muslim’ either. Religion is strictly a choice made by the individual and as for Islam, I don’t believe in it and I don’t practice it, and I don’t go around calling myself a muslim. The only ‘muslim’ thing I do is celebrate Eid at my parents’ house by feasting whole heartedly, as that to me is more a family/cultural occasion rather then a religious event..

    Yet, lo and behold, other people DO see me as muslim even if I don’t identify as one myself, just purely due to my name/ethnicity/family. And there is a certain pressure to identify as such from other asian colleagues and acquaintances. And I feel that if I were to directly tell them that no, I am not a muslim, they would get offended and take it personally or even as an insult against Islam (if they are practicing members of the faith). Suffice to say, I don’t usually bring up religion with people I have just met to avoid the ‘are you muslim?’ question. If it’s asked, I usually make some vague comment about not practicing, not being religious etc. but I can’t state directly that I am not a muslim, no matter how much I want to.

    So yes, I can see very well why she would feel like she HAS to identify as a MUSLIM woman in public even if she personally doesn’t want to (I’m thinking of celebrities like Konnie Huq here). The media will bring up the ‘muslim’ angle every chance they get. And really for someone in the public eye, there is not much choice to dissociate from the ‘muslim’ tag, namely because to do so is tantamount to apostasy in the eyes of some and can bring alot of censure if not threats fom people. A really good example would be ‘muslims’ in politics; in order to have the greatest chance to be elected they have to run for a constituency with a significant asian population, which means of course that they have to portray themselves as muslim candidates even if they don’t believe in the religion. And if they honestly state that they are not muslim…that means the end of their electoral chances if not threats from the ‘haram police’ that you mentioned above.

    So for a public figure who has a muslim sounding name, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. They never truly have the chance to separate themselves from the muslim label no matter how much they want to, because people will still see them as a Muslim/Ex-Muslim/Apostate/Secular-Muslim/Cultural-Muslim/non-practicing Muslim…i.e. using Islam/Muslim as THE reference point in how they are perceived. They are never allowed to be just secular people, nonreligious people, agnostics or atheists; instead they are non-religious Muslims, ‘Agnostic Muslims,’ even ‘Atheist Muslims’…the term ‘Muslim’ is ALWAYS appended to the end in some form.

    Muslim talk about Islam being a religion not a culture and how religion has to be ‘separated’ from culture to be interpreted correctly, yet they pressure people who don’t believe in Islam to identify as Muslim because they are from the cultural community. This is wrong, people should have the freedom not to call themselves Muslim if they do NOT believe in Islam.

    • I sincerely pray death does not come to you before you convert to Islam sister. We love for others what we love for ourselves and I don’t know the experiences you have had with your family, but if you sit down and delve deep into your heart, address some of those, and then have another look at Islam.

    • We should be careful with our words about people. Lets keep the space open for change for people and not close doors. As far as we know, she is Muslim and has professed this on a recent Documentary aired on British Television (BBC 3). It is not befitting for any of us to become judge, jury and executioner of people’s characters. Instead we should people who offer dialogue with Hikmah (wisdom) and show the beauty of Islam.

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