Laurie Toby Edison

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Muslim Women: Beauty Contest Winners and Threatened Rights

Debbie says:

This weekend, Rima Fakih was crowned Miss USA.

As I’m sure you can imagine, I don’t generally give a frig who wins beauty contests. If it was completely up to me, I’d be happy to see them disappear. Nonetheless, Fakih is the first Arab-American, and first Islamic woman, to win Miss USA, and that’s of interest.

At the same time that Fakih is gaining both positive and negative attention in the U.S., devout Muslim women in Quebec and France are facing serious discrimination.

The proposed [Quebec] law — Bill 94 — was tabled earlier this year following a controversy over a Montreal woman who refused to uncover her face while attending publicly funded French-language classes for new immigrants.

The bill does not specifically mention any particular religion but says anyone seeking a public service related to security, communication or identification must show their face.

If enacted as it is, said [Pierre Chagnon, head of Quebec's Bar Association], the law could mean that a Muslim woman visiting Quebec who wears a niqab could be denied information at a tourism office unless she agreed to uncover her face.

I wish I could remember where I saw the link to this story, because whoever posted it said it more clearly than I can: this is discriminating against women for what they wear. I know that France (and by extension Quebec) has a long and complex history of secularization that is difficult for Americans (who have never really separated church and state) to understand fully. And I can entertain arguments that some serious matters of security and/or identification would require something more than being able to see a woman’s eyes.

But language classes? Tourist information? In France, the proposed law will ban the niqab from streets, public transportation, and public places. (In other words, the French law in particular will do what westerners are always crying that Islamic men do: keep women at home and imprisoned.) The Quebecois and French people pushing for these laws aren’t concerned with safety or identification: they’re trying to cut a whole group of women out of the citizenry for what they believe and how they dress. They’re haters, expressing themselves in a French style.

In the U.S., the hatred takes a different form. One standard criticism of Fakih’s victory is that somehow Arab and/or Muslim women have an advantage (yes, really, that’s what they’re saying) in beauty contests. Fortunately, we have the incisive Ta-Nehisi Coates responding:

Whenever a non-white person succeeds at something that is regarded as the province of whites, there’s some sense that the fix is in.

The sense that whites are being cheated in favor of non-whites is as old as slavery itself. White Confederates framed the War as an attempt to cheat whites out of their God-given right to subjugate black people. When colored troops hit the field fighting for the Union, and managed to win a few battles, white Confederates reacted with disbelief, the great diarist Kate Stone said.

The point is that the narrative of white supremacy holds victimhood sacred. It paints whites as the truly put-upon class and asserts that non-white success–black, brown, red, yellow and now “Muslim” — is mostly achieved through vile and despicable means. When reality challenges that view, white supremacy simply moves the goal-post. So in the 19th and early 20th century, blacks were thought of as physically inferior to whites. When blacks succeeded in athletics the logic became that blacks’ “animistic” nature gave them an advantage.

It’s come to beauty pageants, folks. These fools are crying about beauty pageants.

By the way, the assertion in Pipes’ article that Muslim women are winning beauty pageants with “surprising frequency”? Not borne out by Google. At all. All I can find is Fakih and lots of articles about beauty pageants in Arabic countries where one can hardly be surprised if Arabic and/or Muslim women win.

What connects these two stories? They’re both about Islamic women, and they’re both about hatred/bias/discrimination. But together they also illustrate an obvious but almost-never-stated fact about Islamic women:

Islamic women are as different from each other, and exhibit as wide a range of behaviors, interests, preferences, skills, and choices as any other group.

Yes, really.

One Response to “Muslim Women: Beauty Contest Winners and Threatened Rights”

  1. Paul Novitski Says:

    Like every bureaucracy, the Canadian government is comprised of individuals who can vary dramatically in the way in which they interpret and enforce regulations. People in possession of even the smallest thimbleful of power will inevitably broaden or tighten their interpretation of laws in order to further their personal beliefs. We can always try to write better laws and enlighten the masses, but I cynically doubt that we will ever eradicate bigotry and hate from our institutions because they persist so stubbornly in our personalities.

    I heard a very reasonable-sounding higher-up in Canadian Immigration state very plainly in a radio interview recently that the practical reality of such a law is that, if a woman comes through customs with her face covered for obvious cultural reasons, a female customs officer will take her aside to a private space where she can reveal her face for comparison with her passport photo without violating her desire to hide her face from men. I’ve passed through enough border crossings to know that this ideal, even if official policy, will not always be met, because of either a shortage of personnel or a shortage of kindness, but it’s slightly comforting to know that on some level of government there are pragmatic people not lacking in heart. I would expect similar consideration for someone coming through customs wearing a face mask to shield facial injuries from public view, but there will always be some jerk who tries to make them take it off publicly because there are no kittens handy to kick.

    A publicly-funded language class is obviously a semi-sensational stretch — how many people will really wear a niqab in order to steal French lessons? More to the point, do we *really* want people voting or taking crucial tests (e.g. for pilots’ licenses) wearing face masks the entire time with no compromise to check their identity at any moment during the process? Of course not, but compromise seems easy once everyone calms down and starts cooperating.

    By the way, on a linguistic tangent, with reference to Bill 94 — the term “tabled” means postponed in the U.S. but quite the opposite in Canada and other countries using the British parliamentary system. In this case I think we’re left to assume that the debate and vote on the law were postponed, so the writer was translating from Canajian to United Statesese on the fly without noting this opportunity for irony and misunderstanding.

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