Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mid-East Pageantry

Miss America’s Latest Face Comes with Familiar Features

Images Clockwise: Renee Dangoor, Miss Baghdad 1947; Rima Fakih, Miss USA 2010; Georgina Rizk, Miss Universe 1971; Cristina Gigliotti (Dalida), Miss Egypt 1954.
In 1971 Georgina Rizk, a young woman from Lebanon captured the world’s attention when she was crowned Miss Universe; the first time an individual from the Middle East had received such an honor.

Yet a lot has changed since Ms. Rizk’s big win; not least of which is the face of a Middle East she had once represented on a global stage. A civil war in Lebanon, a revolution in Iran and the spread of religious conservatism throughout the Arab World have all had the not-so-unlikely effect of challenging the ways in which individuals in the region approach cultural identity and beauty amongst their peers. Yet that is not all that has changed in the last four decades.

Beauty pageants have a lot to answer for. Though advocates are fond of insisting these events provide “scholarship opportunities,” in a post-feminist era some would also argue that such competitions still objectify women.

Yet the recent Miss America Pageant would suggest another purpose: To alter perceptions. On May 17th the pageant made history by crowning Rima Fakih, a 24 year old Muslim Arab-American.

Although her victory has been cast as a triumph for the Arab American community, it sparked both criticism and a healthy debate amongst Arabs across the Middle East and its Diaspora.

"9 years after 9/11 America has a president of Muslim origin and a Muslim Miss America," tweeted Bahrain’s Foreign Minister. While CNN posted a more critical view by Octavia Nasr, its former senior editor of Middle East affairs: "Arabs are quick to adopt someone who becomes successful, even if their country of origin played no role in their success. Until they make it, their countries of origin do nothing for them," she said.

For past Miss America contestants and winners alike, criticism of any kind is nothing new. Linda Bement, who had won the title of Miss USA in 1960, also faced criticism from Mormon conservatives in her hometown of Salt Lake City Utah, though it had little impact. "I just heard it secondhand that somebody said a Mormon girl shouldn't be showing her body off in a bathing suit," she said. "But I would say overwhelmingly the Mormons were just thrilled that I won.”

To be sure beauty pageants are not a new phenomenon in the Middle East. More intriguing perhaps to that they once served to highlight the region’s diverse faiths and ethnic groups. Looking back one will find examples such as Georgina Rizk, the 1971 Miss Universe, who is Lebanese-Christian. While Renee Dangoor, who was crowned Miss Baghdad in 1947, came from the Iraqi capital’s once thriving Jewish community. Despite their different backgrounds, all these young women came to represent their nation and the region as a whole.

Traditionally the Miss USA Pageant is supposed to reflect the beauty ideals of American women. As an Arab and Muslim American, Fakih thus makes the point that such an ideal can be more inclusive. According to Jos Truitt, a contributor to feminist blog Feministing, “If nothing else this says something about shifting standards of beauty in a culture dominated by representations of white women as attractive. Fakih shows young Muslim and Arab girls that they too can be considered beautiful.”

Equally as important is Fakih’s identity as the daughter of Arab and Muslim immigrants. Born in Lebanon, Rima moved to the United States with her parents as an infant and was raised in New York City, where she attended a Catholic school. Growing up in a household that celebrated both Muslim and Christian faiths, her family eventually moved to Dearborn, Michigan, where she graduated with a degree in Business and Economics from the University of Michigan.

Mirroring a post 9/11 America at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant debate is taking place, Fakih’s status ultimately puts a face to the nation’s identity politics, and has the power to raise the visibility of Arab immigrants in a positive light. She is one in a group of prominent Arab Americans, which includes political activist and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, as well as current U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

Like Georgina Rizk before her, Rima Fakih went on to represent the United States in the Miss Universe 2010 pageant. Yet more important perhaps is that she serves as a reminder that Arabs and Muslims alike have always been a part of America’s fabric.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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