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May 29, 2010

Miss USA: Why do we care so much about a beauty queen anyway?

It has taken us a long time to write about Miss USA 2010 Rima Fakih. There's just so much wrong with the way the media have been handling her story that we didn't know where to start. Reading article after article full of slut-shaming and racism, we just really started to get frustrated and we almost gave it up. Many other blogs have already covered the basics and well, we don't particularly care for beauty pageants in the first place. So we decided not to bother...

...but then we realized that this still needs to be said.

Having recently posted a blog entry about people who are "outraged" over plans to build a mosque "near" Ground Zero and reading the heinous comments on the subject reminded us how rampant Islamophobia and xenophobia really are in the United States. (And of course, open up any issue of Cosmo and you'll see that slut-shaming isn't going away any day soon.)

So we wanted to make sure that our readers knew exactly why the "scandal" and "controversy" about Rima Fakih are so very wrong.

  • Slut Shaming and Hypocrisy
Apparently Fakih participated in a pole dancing event for the radio show Mojo in the Morning back in 2007 in which adult entertainers taught women some moves to "spice up their romance at home".  Only women were present and Fakih did not remove any clothing. Fakih has never been employed as a stripper or exotic danger or other form of adult entertainer. According to a statement she released she was present at the event as in a promotional capacity:
“I can’t deny the pictures. I just want to make it clear, it was not a stripper pole contest; it was actually a promotional event that my friend, who’s a DJ at that radio station, had — for women. [They] collected about 100, 115 women, and they teach them how to dance and be sexy. It actually involved doctors and lawyers, everyone in Detroit. And so I got up there to get the party started and say, ‘Hey, you know what? Hop on up here and show ’em what you learned today.’ ” [MSNBC]
However, if you read the news coverage you'd get a very different idea of what happened. Many of the articles that refer to Fakih's "stripping" (even though she removed no clothing) and some even refer to her as a "former stripper".
Miss USA Rima Fakih a former Stripper? [Arista News]


Miss USA Rima Fakih stripping contest photos emerge [Fox News]


Miss USA: Stripping Before the Crown [Extra]


Miss USA Has a Secret Stripper Past. Why Are We Not Surprised? [E Online]
Fakih has been called slutty and whorish but really, what did she do wrong? The defense that it was just a contest or a class doesn't make much of a difference to me. Even if she was an actual stripper (she wasn't) WHO CARES!? What is so wrong with being a stripper anyway? In my opinion, nothing. I'm so sick of this slut-shaming hypocrisy that only allows women to profit off of their bodies and/or sexiness when it's for someone else's benefit (like, say, the Miss USA Pageant). Which brings me to the photos themselves...

They've been called racysexy, and naughty. Um, really?


Doesn't look too bad to me. And it's downright boring compared to the official Miss USA pageant pics (not that there's anything wrong with these photos either, but there's definitely a lot more skin-and-sexiness in the pageant-sanctioned photos than in the so-called "scandalous" ones). Also, dude, they danced to Ke$ha's "TiK ToK".


What is interesting about this non-scandal, is the selective memory the media seems to be showing when referring to past pageant "scandals". Many of the articles about Fakih referred to former Miss California Carrie Prejean as having been fired over racy photos and an even racier video. However, Prejean was actually fired because of breach-of-contract issues. (Prejean on the other hand claimed she was fired because of religious discrimination.) The video hadn't even been revealed until after her firing; it came to light amidst a lawsuit and settlement negotiations.
 
Vanessa Williams wasn't actually fired as Miss America (1984) either because of the nude photographs that popped up in Penthouse. She was pressured by the pageant officials and sponsors to resign (not that it's much better, but still). She is still listed on the official website as 1984's Miss America (sharing the title with Miss America b, runner-up Suzette Charles).

Luckily the Miss Universe Organization has decided that Fakih will not lose her crown because of the photos and will compete for Miss Universe later this year.

  • Islamophobia and Xenophobia
In addition to the media obsession over her "secret stripping past" (eyeroll) are the news stories that focus Fakih's ethnicity and religion. Born in Lebanon (her family moved to the United States in 1993), Fakih is the first Arab-American and the first Muslim-American to win the title of Miss USA. This has people on both sides of the spectrum upset. Perhaps the dumbest arguments come from the right-wing/conservative racist/Islamophobic spectrum. 

The pageant organization has been accused of affirmative action and being overly P.C. and too liberal. Fakih has repeatedly been accused of being a terrorist supporter (having been called "Miss Hezbollah", so clever) based on some pretty flimsy evidence. A lot of people have been making the same ridiculous claims, but conservative Debbie Schlussel seems to be leading the pack in unfounded accusations (she refers to her "intelligence sources" often, but rarely cites them).  
Her devout Muslim family comes from the Hezbollah-controlled South Lebanon.  Intelligence sources confirm that at least three of Fakih’s relatives are currently top officials in Hezbollah and that at least eight Fakih family members were Hezbollah terrorists killed by the Israelis in past Israel-Lebanese wars and interventions.  [May 12, 2010, emphasis mine] 
Fakih's family is not "devout" Muslim. Any strict, devout conservative Muslim woman would likely not enter a beauty pageant, which includes parading around in a bikini. Of course Schlussel just calls this "deception of the infidels to further the cause of Islam/jihad." (The best way to further to cause of Islam is to break the so-called rules of Islam? Okay.)

Fakih has stated in many interviews that her immediate family is more "spiritual" than religious. Her extended family has quite a diverse background - including Muslims, Christians, and even some Jews - and she describes her immediate family as "not strict" and herself as "liberal" and "not defined by religion". So where does Schlussel get "devout" from that?

But even if she was more Muslim... so what? It's annoying that so many of the interviews with Fakih must focus 95% on her religion/background, but even more annoying is how often she needs to drill home the point that she's not that Muslim. She celebrates Christmas! She went to Catholic school! Her cousin is a priest! I'm all for breaking down rumors with the truth, but the focus should be less on how she's not-that-Muslim and more about it how doesn't matter if she's Muslim or not.

As for her alleged Hezbollah relatives... Schlussel gives no source of this information (who are her "intelligence sources" and why should we believe them - or more importantly her) other than the fact that they share a surname. However, that doesn't mean they're close relatives or that they even know each other. Local officials said that the Fakih family is one of the largest in that area of Lebanon. Even if they are Hezbollah, it is not only possible, but likely - that Rima Fakih (who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 7) would have no ties to them.

To put it into perspective, here's an example for you, from my own far extended family... if you look deep into just one side of my family tree you will find Catholic nuns, low-ranking members of organized crime, and a very well-known baseball manager. I've never met any of them. (And not that it matters, but for those of you who might assume that if I defend a Muslim then I'm automatically an anti-Semite, my other side of the family is Jewish). Think of it in the context of your own family - do you know, support, and agree with the politics and religious beliefs of all of your distant relatives? Hell, many of don't even agree with the politics and religious beliefs of our close relatives either.


But the accusations go beyond being a terrorist sympathizer to actually being a spy for the terrorists. Fuck the White House and Pentagon.... what the terrorists really want is to infiltrate the Miss USA pageant.

The headlines (even those that defend Fakih from such accusations) have been pretty offensive:

New Miss USA: Islamic fundamentalism in a bikini? [Miami Herald]
Can Muslim women be hot? [ABC.net.au]
What a Muslim Miss USA Really Means NBC New York (This title doesn't sound that bad... but the URL reads "The sociological ramifications of Miss USA being a half Muslim former stripping contest entrant".)
Hezbollah-Supporting Rima Fakih, Sponsored by 9/11 Truther, Wins Miss USA [Jewish Internet Defense League]
Is Miss USA a Muslim Trailblazer? (This title doesn't sound bad, until you learn that the original teaser said "Miss USA: Muslim Trailerblazer? Or spy?" On CNN!) [CNN via Mediaite]
Rima Fakih: Miss Hezbollah is Now Miss USA [MichNews.com
Rima Fakih: Muslims Mock America With Naked Mascot [Bad Eagle]
Miss USA Rima Fakih: Hezbollah babe or just a girl in a bikini? [McClatchy]

And then on the other hand, are the people that feel that Fakih is not a good "Muslim role model"... that is, she isn't Muslim enough. Hena Zuberi wrote, in a guest post for Muslim Matters:
Making this about her religion, gives our girls the wrong role model to look up to. I am dreading the moment when one of my kids will get congratulated for a Muslim winning the pageant. That will stop my “Muslims don’t do that” line stone cold. When I tell my daughter that Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) may do certain things because she is a non- Muslim, what do I tell her now? Maybe I will tell her the same thing I told her when suicide bombers blew my uncle and nephew up while praying Jumu’ah in Rawalpindi, “that they are not following Islam.” It felt lame then and it feels lame now.

I know sex and all that is sexy sells and that’s what people are into but Muslim teens need stronger Muslim women highlighted in other fields, whose behavior they can emulate. [Muslim Matters via Opposing Views, emphasis mine]
I agree with her, that we don't necessarily want our children - of any religion - looking up to beauty pageant winners as role models. (That's not to say that Rima Fakih, or any other pageant contestant, can't be a good role model, but just that many of us would prefer our daughters have aspirations beyond winning a tiara based on how good they look in a swimsuit.) However, what I don't agree with is the idea that Muslim girls somehow need role models that live up to a higher standard than any other little girls.

What I mean, is that Miley Cyrus doesn't do "certain things" simply because she is a non-Muslim. She does certain things based on her personal belief system. There are plenty of Christians who would say that Cyrus is not a good Christian role model, just as there are plenty of Muslims who would say that Fakih is not a good Muslim role model. But if the 9/11 attacks prove anything about Islam, it is that not all Muslims are alike or interpret the religion in the same way. Fakih may not represent Zuberi's personal interpretation of Islam and that's legitimate, but she may very well represent other people's interpretation of Islam. It's not fair to say that she's not a "real" Muslim or not a "good" Muslim, just because her beliefs are more moderate than others.

I agree that Muslim children need more strong Muslim women to look up to, but that doesn't mean Fakih winning Miss USA is a bad thing. It's still good that she's broken down another barrier (even if it's a relatively superficial one, sort of like Tyra's Sports Illustrated cover) and she can be a role model to those who practice more moderate/liberal Islam.

From an interview with Fakih for Patheos:
It seems that you also have some educating to do in terms of explaining to fellow Arabs and Muslims that there are different ways to be Arab, to be Muslim; not all Arabs, not all Muslims have the same beliefs and practices and attitudes. Is that accurate?

It's very accurate, yes, in the sense that there's a stereotype. Every ethnicity has a stereotype, and I believe that Arabs have that as well, especially after 9/11. I never understood the whole speculation around 9/11. It involved someone who was not [Muslim]. They might have believed, in their wrong minds, that they were Muslim even though they were completely doing everything against the Muslim faith. They were Arabs, but Arabs felt fearful, they felt they were going to be pointed at. I'm hoping to take away that fear, to remind them that America is still built on freedom and opportunity.
It would be nice if Fakih's religion wasn't even an issue. Like we've said before, in this post-9/11 world our wounds are still raw and our defenses are still on high. But the terrorists were radical Islamic extremists - a very small percentage of the general Muslim population. They may have used Islam to justify the murder of many people, but Islam was not the cause of the 9/11 attack. Hatred was. And we should know by now that hatred only begets more hatred... Islam is not a religion of hatred and violence. It isn't. And Fakih is not a terrorist in a bikini. She's just a beauty queen.

  • And as a Bonus...
Let's not forget the whole "controlled substances" thing. Michelle Malkin was quick to point out Fakih's "gaffe" during the interview portion of the pageant in which she was asked a question about birth control.
During the interview portion, Fakih was asked whether she thought birth control should be paid for by health insurance, and she said she believed it should because it’s costly.

“I believe that birth control is just like every other medication even though it’s a controlled substance,” Fakih said.
Imagine if those words had come out of the mouth of Carrie Prejean or Sarah Palin.

Between the NYTimes, MSNBC, Jon Stewart, and the late night talkers, we wouldn’t hear the end of it.

Does this woman know what a “controlled substance” is?

More importantly: Does she even comprehend the concept of insurance? The purpose of insurance isn’t to cover every last medical expense. It’s supposed to cover events that are beyond your control. Should auto insurers now cover oil changes and satellite radio installations? I mean, hey, they’re “expensive,” too! [Michelle Malkin]

Okay, here's the thing. A "controlled substance" is any drug or chemical whose general availability is restricted. When most people think of controlled substances they think of illegal narcotics and prescription drugs that are likely to be abused and while these are the types of drugs included in Substance Control laws, by the most basic general definition, a controlled substance is any drug or chemical whose manufacture, possession, and use are regulated (or you know, controlled) by a government.

So yes, birth control pills would fit under that umbrella. It may not be what we think of when we think of controlled substance laws but even nail polish remover is technically a controlled substance. In fact, when you look at how much the government consistently tries to up its regulation of contraception, it's becoming more and more "controlled" every minute.

There were definitely better ways that Fakih could've phrased her answer - it's clear she misspoke - but let's not forget how nerve-wracking it must be to be put on the spot like that in front of so many viewers. (She still did a hell of a lot better than Caite Upton did!) I also think we need to acknowledge that these are beauty queens, not Rhodes scholars. An intelligent/educated response to an interview question is always preferable, but are we shocked when contestants say things that come out sounding a little dumb?

The other part of her answer isn't stupid at all. Maybe to a conservative like Malkin the idea of wanting birth control to be covered by insurance is ignorant and stupid, but most people would agree with Fakih on that one!

A lot of people felt that Miss Oklahoma, Elizabeth Woodard, was robbed, but really, it's all so subjective.  Some have argued that Woolard's answer - about Arizona's immigration law - was more intelligent and educated than Fakih's. That may be true but that doesn't mean she should automatically win. Frankly, I thought Miss Virginia was better than anyone up there. A lot of people (not just Latinos in Arizona) have big problems with the law. While Woolard claimed she is against racial profiling, she said that she was for the law - which at its core, is based on racial profiling, not that the white, blonde Woolard would know anything about that - so she "sees both sides of this issue" (way to try to avoid giving a real answer). She also stated that she was for states' rights.
"I'm a huge believer in states' rights. I think that's what's so wonderful about America."
Really? Is that what is so wonderful about America? I don't know. I can think of some better things about America that are more "wonderful" than states' rights. How about freedom of religion? How about basic civil rights?

But I guess Rima Fakin's critics wouldn't give a shit about that sort of thing anyway.

3 comments:

Palaverer said...

I'm wondering what Muslims would consider a good female role model for their girls. I mean that in all seriousness.

Lilith said...

I guess it would depend on which Muslim/s you ask. Who do you consider to be good female role models for Christian girls?

The truth is that there is a lack of any female Muslim role models for little girls in the U.S. Aside from Fakih, I can't think of any (non-political) prominent Muslim woman in the media. I'm far from an expert, so anyone who can, please comment!!

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

It does not surprise me at all that Debbie Schlussel is being a jerk about Ms. Faikh--she's just about the most anti-Muslim writer out there--even if it's not about Islam, she makes it about Islam.