Yes, it’s paradox time, and the paradox cuts several ways.
In Rima Fakih’s home town of Dearborn, MI, which has one of the largest Arab-American populations in the US, many people evidently went for celebration. Her win was hailed by the regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as a major breakthrough for Arab Americans, and perhaps it is. Perhaps it’s a welcome sign of normalization, of the long overdue acceptance of Arab-Americans as un-hyphenated Americans.
Beauty pageants, after all, are an integral a part of American popular culture, so the apple-pie principle comes into operation: if a Muslim Lebanese woman is Miss USA, then being Muslim and Arab-American is ipso facto as American as apple pie.
So bravo for that aspect of it. But then there’s the other: Beauty pageants may have come a long way baby (and oh, the condescension contained in that phrase), but the fact that they still take place is one of the many failures of feminism. They’re still a means of objectifying women, still women being judged by how attractive they are to the male gaze. As the contestants line up on the stage, the cattle-market aspect of the proceedings is unavoidable — all the more when one of the judges is no less than the irredeemably unestimable Donald Trump.
. Then add in what happens when the male gaze is “Western” and the object being gazed at is Middle Eastern. Say hello yet again to Orientalism, the stereotyping of the Middle East so devastatingly analyzed by the late and deeply lamented Edward Said. The syndrome he described — the Western perception of the seductive mystery of the feminized Middle East, dangerous and irrational — still haunts Middle Eastern studies and policy.
And then say hello to Rima Fakih herself. She went into pageants for the scholarship money, has a BA in economics and business management, works as a marketer for the Detroit Medical Center., and is planning to go to law school. She’s clearly a very different kind of Muslim from the ultra-conservative stereotype focused on in the American press, whereby all of Islam gets hijacked by its most extremist Saudi-trained interpreters. Those interpreters will be among the first to denounce her for selling out to “Western values,” being a “bad Muslim” for appearing in a swimsuit in public, and so on.
So while part of me groans, another part of me celebrates. This is the way progress happens — in big steps and baby ones, ways we would choose and ways we would not. I wish I could be whole-hearted and say “Congratulations Rima!” As is, I’ll hold those congratulations for when she gets nominated to the Supreme Court.