Miss Headscarf 2008

The first Miss Headscarf contest was judged a couple of months ago in Copenhagen, Denmark. The organisers developed the idea in response to the recent controversy surrounding the Mohammed cartoons and ensuing debates on the appropriateness of Muslim women’s headscarves in Denmark. (Entrants don’t have to be Muslim; anyone can enter by submitting a photo of themselves wearing a headscarf). The contest organisers see MIss Headscarf 2008 as a way to give a much-needed visibility to the views of “all the Muslim women who are seldom heard in the debate.” As one of the contestants said, “it’s about the time the media talked to us, and not about us all the time.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/denmark/2044680/Miss-Headscarf-contest-for-Muslims-attacked.html)

The pageant has received criticism from those who believe it is disrespectful to Muslims and trivialises the hijab, and those who argue it glorifies what they see as a symbol of female oppression.  Interestingly, the contest seemed to both embrace and reject ‘traditional’ beauty pageants. The reasons for which the judges decided to award the title to Iraqi-born Huda Falah ranged from the attractiveness of her “royal blue headscarf [which] makes a sharp contrast to her dark brown skin” and another judge’s impression of her scarf’s colour as showing “attitude and impact.” Some have argued that the focus on appearance in this competition may be at odds with the purpose of a headcovering in Islam.

A beauty pagaent for those who wear headscarves is certainly an interesting way to make Muslim women more visible, but I wonder whether this risks casting Muslim women who don’t wear headscarves as ‘not real Muslims’. While it is undoubtedly imperative that women who wear headscarves speak about their own choices, perhaps there needs to be an event that allows Muslim women who choose not to wear a headscarf to participate alongside those who do wear one. Otherwise, is it really giving voice to the views of “all Muslim women” involved in the debate? Taking into account the views of non-veiled Muslim women alongside those who choose to wear the headscarf would certainly go some way towards challenging the image of Muslims as a homogenous group who oppress women by forcing them to live under layers of chiffon.

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5 Responses to Miss Headscarf 2008

  1. llwynn says:

    Maryam, thanks for that, it’s really interesting. You know when I lived in Saudi Arabia (now about 15 years ago) there was some controversy over attempts to brand and market `abayas as fashion. `Abayas are the all-covering black robes that most Saudi women wear and many Jeddah women would buy versions trimmed in lace or ribbon with matching tarhas or headscarves. Very pretty. Very expensive, too! Westerners have this stereotype that the `abaya and tarha make Saudi women all look alike, but once you develop an eye for it you realize that they are markers of taste and distinction. But that’s where the controversy came in: some religious scholar argued that the garment meant to cover a women’s beauty and adornment was itself becoming an item of adornment and beauty. Jeddah women still continued to shop for and wear the expensive `abayas-tarha sets, but that religious scholar put the nix on the burgeoning industry of `abaya fashion shows.

    I see similar things going on here. First, we have people recognizing what we might call an anthropological fact: that items of clothing used to cover the body are also seen by most wearers as fashionable markers of distinction that can be used to enhance the wearer in some form. Then we have someone hitting on an apparently clever idea of highlighting the distinction-marking, beauty-enhancing aspect of these. But that recognition of anthropological fact is at odds with a powerful ideology of hijab as an item of clothing that is meant to cover beauty, not enhance it, and usually people say that the beauty-enhancement properties of hijab are the way that it marks a woman as modest, god-fearing, and thus religiously beautiful. But that’s a very different notion of beauty than that we typically associate with beauty contests.

    The whole thing practically begs for ethnographic investigation and analysis…

  2. mkhalid says:

    Lisa, if I was an anthropologist I would go there, but alas I chose the wrong discipline.
    I remember seeing something on SBS recently about what abayas being customised, and in this doco people could guess the identity of the abaya wearer just by looking at the embriodery or embellishment that was on it! There is nothing in Islam, as far as I am aware, that would stop an abaya wearer from ‘decorating’ it, or showing their individuality through it, but there does seem to be a fine line between that and an abaya that is meant to attract attention (or, the ‘wrong kind of attention’ perhaps?).
    AlthoughMiss Headscarf does still judge on attractiveness to some extent, this particular beauty contest doesn’t compare to overwhelming focus on physical attractiveness in pageants like Miss World and Miss Universe.

  3. Rosalyn says:

    Such an interesting post about the “controvesy” surrounding veiling. I’ve read a lot about it but I think this is the first time I’ve thought about headscarfs as a way to “showcase” preferences in fashion, and perhaps class (i.e. what a wealthy woman can afford to wear/veil as opposed tp less wealthy). mkhalid I think despite the discipline you are in (I believe its politics ?) you can still engage in some ethnographic reserach. Team up with Lisa … you two could get married!

  4. llwynn says:

    Hey Maryam, how timely: the Washington Post just had an article about a Saudi fashion designer who faced a lot of criticism for trying to make traditional Saudi dress fashionable. The interesting twist, though, is that he wasn’t criticized for making women’s robes into fashion, but rather for tampering with traditional men’s robes – he says he was accused of trying to make Saudi men look gay.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/10/AR2008091003242.html
    and see Leo Americanus’s interesting commentary here: http://leoamericanus.blogspot.com/2008/09/saudi-fashion-police.html

    Rosalyn, what makes you think that Maryam and I aren’t ALREADY married?

  5. Rosalyn says:

    To each other?! well I never …..

    I would have thought, in order to maintain high standrds and the integrity of the blog, that you would have declared such information at the onset – perhaps in your “About”page. Alas I see nothing. In light of this I am therefore forced to question the legitimacy of this site. SUCH IMPORTANT INFORMATION NEEDS TO BE MADE AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC.

    Shame on you!

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