“I’ve never worn a bikini and I have no intentions to either.”
Watched Muna Jama walk the stage as a Miss Universe contestant in awe. She was exactly who I wanted to be as a kid. I used to watch every single pageant, and wear my mother’s hijab as a sash. I’d make crowns out of old milk jugs, and practice my acceptance speech in the mirror. Even then, I was painfully aware that there was no one who looked like me on that stage. When you’re socialized to believe that you can’t be certain things because of your identity, it creates barriers that should never have existed in the first place.
When you’re socialized to believe that you can’t be certain things because of your identity, it creates barriers that should never have existed in the first place.
Women like Muna and I share similar childhoods. We were the girls who never saw ourselves on television, on runways, or in magazines. Black, Muslim and daughters of immigrants — we were a minority within a minority. Even now, with a thriving modest fashion industry, the idea of what a Muslim woman looks like often excludes intersectional identities. But women like Halima Aden and Muna Jama are changing that.
Last week, Jama made history, and became the first woman to compete in a Miss Universe pageant, and not wear a bikini. Instead she wore a kaftan, and the fact that the pageant allowed her to is a victory for anyone who believes a woman has the right to choose what to wear. But more than that, Jama’s victory shows that modesty does not necessarily mean hijab and it highlights the diversity within the Muslim community.
The fact that the pageant allowed her to wear a kaftan is a victory for anyone who believes a woman has the right to choose what to wear.
“I am Muslim, I am British and I am proud. I practice my religion the best way I know how,” said Jama. “I’ve never worn a bikini and I have no intentions to either. It was important to me to be understood.”
The conversation around hijab in the Muslim community is often guilty of dividing women into a “good girl/bad girl” dichotomy, based on whether or not they wear a hijab. Those who do not wear a hijab are stigmatized and seen as being less religious, modest, or out-right slut-shamed, where as those who do wear it are held to an unattainable standard of behavior. It also often leads to conversations that ignore the barriers placed on all Muslim women by societal standards, and not just those who choose to wear a hijab.
After being accepted into Miss Universe, Jama made clear she would not wear a bikini and requested a cover-up — and she was heard. “I respect Miss Universe for understanding and accepting me to wear a cover up during the swimwear round,” she said. “And just as I chose to wear whatever I did — I shared the stage with women who also made the choice to wear what they wore.”
There was not a single moment where Jama felt she would need to compromise her personal beliefs for the sake of the pageant, and that’s what feminism should look like. For her, empowering women means giving them the choice to do what they want with their body — at all times. She was inspired to take part in the pageant by her late grandmother, who encouraged her to apply.
“She was intelligent and driven; a fearless woman, I believe that’s where my mum got it from. She inspired me to go to Somaliland last year,” said Jama.
In Somaliland, Jama was able to help with drought relief efforts. Unfortunately, her grandmother passed away before the pageant began. But it was that trip that would give Jama the final push to compete in the pageant, and to use the opportunity to bring awareness to the struggles in East Africa. She entered the pageant to advocate for drought survivors, but instead became one of the many women who are changing the face of fashion.
“I had no idea I was going to inspire anyone. I just wanted to stay true to myself and not do anything that I don’t do outside my normal life; to pretend, to be someone I’m not,” she said.
For Jama, everything about the pageant was empowering. “I felt invincible on stage. I was ecstatic and it was just a feeling that I wish every woman across the world could feel; and should feel, whether it’s on her way to work or dropping the kids off at school, this feeling was incredible,” she said.
But the best part of the pageant was her mother’s reaction. A single mom who raised 10 kids in a foreign country, she was beaming with pride when her daughter walked onstage.
“My mum would tell anyone who would listen. Her friends, the neighbor, the sales advisor. You name it — she would introduce me as Miss Universe Great Britain Finalist 2017,” said Jama.
The overwhelmingly positive response proves that there are countless young girls are home, who have been waiting too long to see faces like theirs in pageants.
Jama received many positive comments since the pageant — one of many indicators that her decision to wear a kaftan was long overdue. Moreover, the response proves that there are countless young girls are home, who have been waiting too long to see faces like theirs in pageants. Muna Jama showed them that it’s possible.
Source: Teen Vogue