Rima Fakih and the Issue of Muslim Heritage

This post was written by Margari Aziza Hill and originally published at her website.

It’s taken me a while to make a statement on the Rima Fakih’s win. Out of the many reasons why, the one that stands out the most is that American Muslims tend to condemn non-practicing Muslims. Although the numbers of practicing Muslims is lower than we’d like to admit, many American Muslims are not willing to admit that a woman without hijab also has a place in our community. And often, they can represent our community in different ways, then say a practicing Muslim women who wear full hijab and doesn’t mix with men.

From Mis-Represented to Miss USA: Muslims Applaud Rima Fakih, 2010 Pageant Winner

Muslims in America woke up to some happy news today – the new Miss USA is Muslim! Rima Fakih of Dearborn, Michigan, is a Lebanese immigrant whose family celebrates both Muslim and Christian faiths, according to the Associated Press. Last night, she made history by winning the Miss USA 2010 crown.

“What a breath of fresh air for the Arab American community, to have Rima Fakih named Miss USA 2010,” said Linda Sarsour, Director of the Arab American Association of New York, to elan. “This is only a testament that Arab and Muslim American women too are strong, intelligent, beautiful and competitive.”

“This is historic,” said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to the Detroit Free Press. “This shows the greatness of America, how everyone can have a chance to make it.”

So many people were obsessed about Rima as a new Muslim celebrity who could open up discussions about Islam. But I wonder why the Arab community never backed some prominent women in the media who also have Muslim heritage.

I have some important questions: What if Rima Fakih came from an African-American Muslim family in some place like Philadelphia? Would the American public, let alone the Muslim community, have been so forgiving about the pole dance? Would altMuslimah and Muslimah Media watch feature articles saying that her victory was a sign that Muslims were part of America, too, or that she could open up discussions about Islam? Could these women of African descent and Muslim heritage create a chance for discussion about Islam and American Muslim’s place in this society?

Do we buy Eve’s albums and celebrate her as the first lady of Muslims in Hip Hop? Did we watch her show or bring her up in discussions with friends to show them that Muslims are just like everybody else?

Fatima Siad. Image uncredited.

Did we watch and support Fatima Siad (pictured left) who made it to 3rd place in cycle 10 of America’s Next Top Model? She was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. Did this start off discussions about the diversity of the immigrant Muslim community?

Or what about an even more famous Somali-American, Iman? Do we consider her status as supermodel as a sign that Americans accept Muslims?

Do we love Tatyana Ali, who has Afro-Panamanian and Indo-Trinidadians descent? Does her family history spark an interest in the Indian diaspora and the role of Islam in the Caribbean, in addition to Caribbean Americans?

Do we watch and support Laila Ali, in her professional boxing matches? Better yet, did we vote for her on Dancing with the Stars? She the daughter of one of the most iconic figures of African American Muslims, Muhammad Ali. But yet, do we see her strides in sports as reflecting a type of Muslim feminism?

I had two problems with the discourse on Rima Fakih and Miss USA: first, my Arab peers who expected me to celebrate this as a Muslim victory that demonstrates we Muslims are part of America too; and second, the Muslims who expected me to be angry because a Muslimah should not parade around in a bikini. Both stances assumes one thing, that being born into a Muslim family means that you are Muslim. And it also sends a stronger message, that all Arab issues are synonymous with Muslim issues. Often we are too broad in accepting every thing that people with Muslim heritage do as reflecting Islam in general. This is especially the case when it comes to Arab, Pakistani, or Indian Muslims. The women featured above are not seen as reflective of the state of Islam in America.

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  • http://jamericanmuslim.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    Kudos Margari!!! I have nothing else to add.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist

    I had no idea that rapper Eve is a Muslim! I was surprised when I read this.

    A lot of Muslim immigrants and Muslim Americans (non-black) do acknowledge Iman as a successful Muslim woman who made it big in the modeling/fashion world. She is probably the most famous & best known East African Muslim woman in the Western world. I’ve also heard Tatyana Ali and Laila Ali mentioned in many discussions with Muslim peers (mostly Desi Muslim).

    I don’t know who you’re hanging out with, but many people in my local Islamic Desi community acknowledge all these 3 women.

    so yes, many of us, who are not African American/Black Muslim or African Muslim, are aware of their contributions.

    • Fatemeh

      @DIMA: It’s not fair to discount Margari’s experiences. Although people in your local community may acknowledge the contributions and achievements of black American Muslim women, Margari’s feelings come from her own (valid) experiences.

  • Amanda Ali

    I just want to say that Eve has never come out and said explicitly that she is a Muslim. She has only stated that she would choose Sunni Islam if she could live the lifestyle (which she can’t at this time).

    • Blu

      I know this thread is a few years old, but I’m a little tired of people thinking that if you have western dress and don’t cover up you “can’t” be Muslim. Please stop this nonsense. This is simply NOT true. I won’t even argue about the politics of the day when Islam began and how the hijab came to fruition because frankly, this is a personal choice. Period. What matters, is that I am Muslim and I know that in my heart. I also tell everyone I am Muslim… I don’t sugar coat it by saying “I’m spiritual” – yes I am spiritual, but I am Muslim… I don’t need to wear a head cover to prove that and it isn’t part of my culture as far as I’m concerned – this to me is an artifact from Arabs that is questionable. As Muslims we should be able to have discourse about that and space for interpretation. I will add that there are many “invisible” Muslims in this country because for many generations we have stuck our heads in the sand out of fear of being ostracized… this is the most humiliating thing we can do to ourselves. Keeping this secret shames us – how can we face our children and teach them to be good Muslims when we think it’s okay to lie to everyone else? If I shut my mouth, you’d never guess that I was Muslim, or that I am anything but just some white American woman. It would be easy for me to “pass” but I don’t. I tell anyone who wants to know and I wear a necklace with “Allah” proudly. People are blown away when they see a white, green eyed Muslim, and that I’m not a convert (hundreds of years now my family is Muslim on both sides). And that’s just fine by me… let them be shocked to know that we are just like anyone else, all colors and sizes and types and ethnicities… and all styles of dress including the hijab, the sari and a good pair of blue jeans… and yes, maybe even a bikini or two. I’m not Arab, I’m not Black or Asian… I’m Muslim. Let’s stick to that and stick together!

  • NancyH

    i don’t know why people can’t understand that, just as there are many kinds of Christians or Jews of various races who follow different rules and even hold different values, there are various kinds of Muslims also. for some of them religion is more a family background than an everyday influence. the take away from the “shocking” Muslim Miss America, is that it’s wrong of us to try to understand people by putting them in stereotypical boxes.

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  • http://solesisterscollective.blogspot.com Salma

    Hi Margari,

    Thi sis a great piece, and I have encountered a lot of what you are speaking about here.

    I am just wondering why you ask , “But I wonder why the Arab community never backed some prominent women in the media who also have Muslim heritage.”
    Islam is our religion, you do not inherit it,and as a convert, I could care less who acknowledges me as a “Muslim”.

    Secondly, I am not sure why “Arabs” would acknowledge…Islam does not belong to Arabs, ot belongs to the world, there is only one God, and it is not an Arab God.

    In my opinion, the Muslim community is just as flawed as any. I would not want to see my daughter out in the spotlight getting credit for being a strong, intelligent Muslin woman because she won a beauty contest.

  • http://azizaizmargari.wordpress.com Margari Aziza

    Thanks all for the thoughtful comments. :)

    In no way do I want to discount Rima’s Islam. I welcome any woman as a sister in faith who openly embraces her Islam. I know how it felt getting slammed by people for not wearing hijab or living the most “Islamic lifestyle.” I think it is important that we keep discussion open, without conflating an ethnic identity with Islam. For example, Islam is not a Black thang, as some would imagine.

    I have lived and worked diverse Muslim communities around the country. I’m well travelled and have lived in several cities, as well as internationally. And I have a wide range of friends from various ethnicities and classes. Where I teach at now it is 1/2 Arab and 1/2 Black American Muslim with a sprinkling of Arab students. While my experience is not reflective of the entire American Muslim community, I’m not coming from some punduck town. And rarely did any of my friends or associates discuss or identify with Iman, Leilah Ali, or any other Black woman with Muslim heritage in the same way. It is encouraging that your circle is open to see these women’s contributions. Some communities are more progressive and open to discussions such as the one we’re having.

  • Sobia

    I think part of the issue is that many of these ladies have not stated that they are Muslim. I was pretty sure that Laila Ali did not identify as Muslim. I had no idea that Iman or Tatyana Ali were Muslim either. My understanding is that Tatyana is actually Christian.

    The thing is, that if people do not choose to identify, explicitly, as Muslim it may not be appropriate for us to make assumptions based on their name. Even many Muslims, both practicing and not, do not want to be known by their religion and may purposely choose to not bring it up in public. Rima appears to be talking about being Muslim, as do many Muslim men in the media, such as Mos Def, Mohammad Ali, Lupe Fiasco, Dave Chapelle, etc.

  • Judy

    Years ago I saw Iman on TV talking about Islam/Muslim issues. I don’t think she’s in the closet about it.

  • Samira

    By saying that these women never explicitly “came out” as Muslim, inadvertently, supports the very premise of Margari’s argument.

    The fact is that many non-black Muslims never have to “come out”-instead their Muslimness is considered a default aspect of who they are-yet for those of us of African heritage we are usually invisible even within the context of our home country-America.

    I’ve for many years had an issue with the fact that Muslim women of African descent are almost never asked to speak on Islam or more narrowly gender issues within the Muslim community. I think our experiences could really open up the dialogue on Muslims in America in very interesting ways. For instance, on her blog Margari talked about how African-American Muslims dealing with out of wedlock children and marriage could challenge ideas about “dishonor” violence and its validity within Muslim lives.