When a Muslim Arab-American becomes the first Miss USA, do we celebrate or groan?
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.
This is a great find, Lesley!
I’ll forward it to the director of the ASMA society ~ American Society for Muslim Advancement. Good work! T’m
No paradox for me — the ‘sexy’ pre-contest photos they all had to submit to, and that pole-dancing contest where she got her start, put me firmly in the ‘what in the world are we applauding’ camp. Anyone who is raising girls (and their brothers) can be nothing but appalled at the increasingly soft-core pornographic sexualization of the public image of young women — these days, smarts and accomplishments mean nothing unless packaged in soft-focus sex-kitten half-undress.
The young women I know are confused, bewildered, and resentful of the hyper-sexualization.
Pole-dancing? Yugh. I didn’t know about that. As my mother might have said, “What’s a nice Muslim girl doing pole-dancing?”
Doing what all these so-called ‘contestants’ in all these ‘contests’ are doing — going for money and profile in the fastest way to get it in our time. Those high-sex photos the Miss America girls did pre-contest were the first clue that all of them are a far cry from anything resembling a positive model of womanhood. This may be the way our world is now, but please let’s not view it as a step forward for anything.
Well put. My point — I think — was the possibility of increasing acceptance of Arab Americans in American popular culture, whatever we think of said culture, at a time when Arab Americans have been stigmatized and stereotyped by “the war on terror.” But then “acceptance” is a questionable thing in itself, always implying that there’s something unacceptable lurking in the backgrpound (or, as with the hyper-sexualization of such contests, in the foreground). That’s why I like this brief summing up on Twitter from Syria News: “Yay an Arab won a misogynistic outdated competition that most of the world cringes at. Be proud Arabs, we’ve made it in America.”
Your original post started by highlighting the paradox and ambiguities occasioned by the event so it’s curmudgeonly of me, I know, to press on.
Of course I applaud increasing acceptance of Arab Americans in the culture, popular and otherwise. I’d be even happier if they were seen as just plain old Americans; indeed, I thought the significance of Obama’s campaign and win lay precisely in the fact that it opened the possibility of that kind of new space.
Still, I think we owe it to our daughters and sons, and to ourselves, to do all we can to raise the popular culture out of the mindless muck in which it seems stuck these days. American popular culture used to be liberating and lively, the best possible ad for America, and one of the main reasons so much of the world used to dream of Coming to America (I should know, my own refugee parents had that dream). Lately, American popular culture seems to be turning that dream into a tawdry nightmare — perhaps the Twitter from Syria is a clue that ‘making it in America’ isn’t quite the longed-for dream it used to be.
Press on, Kitty! We need curmudgeons to call us to account and remind us of who we are/could-be/want-to-be. Thanks — L.
Thank you, that was very informative. I run a small blog on Amican Political families and have fallen over for me (I am British) an odd fact. A very large number of women in Congresshave been beauty pageant winners and we are talking Senators and Govs not lowly Reps. But! They are almost exclusively Republicans and not Democrats! Could you suggest why that might be. part from the feminism idea and old fashioned snobbishness I am stumped!
An intriguing side-window on Republican values, I’d guess.