Tahmena Bokhari: A Study in (How We Talk About) Contradictions

Tahmena Bokhari: A Study in (How We Talk About) Contradictions January 21, 2010

Tahmena Bokhari.  Via the Toronto Star.
Tahmena Bokhari. Via the Toronto Star.

Tahmena Bokhari, a feminist, Muslim, Canadian, social worker, and educator, was recently crowned Mrs. Pakistan 2010 (not to be confused with Miss Pakistan World).

Bokhari’s accomplishments are varied and impressive: a master’s degree in social work, a history of working at women’s shelters and other humanitarian initiatives.  She currently teaches social work at two different colleges, and also acts as a diversity consultant.  There’s a good interview with her here about her experiences with the Mrs. Pakistan pageant, and about her work in general.

What I want to look at are some of the ways that Bokhari’s identity is being talked about in the media.  A Toronto Star article about her starts off as follows:

Tahmena Bokhari is Mrs. Pakistan 2010. She was crowned in a Mississauga motel in December.

The Canadian Muslim is also a diehard feminist.

Get your head around all that.

“It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?” she says from the couch in her family’s spacious Woodbridge home […]

Similarly, an article about Bokhari in a local community newspaper where she lives refers to her in the headline as “a world of contradictions,” and proceeds to highlight some of these co-called contradictions:

She’s Canadian, but Pakistani. She’s Muslim, but also a feminist. She is a Seneca College professor, a social activist, married and, to top it all off, Mrs. Pakistan World.

Alright.  I get that, in mainstream media, beauty queens aren’t usually associated with feminism, Islam isn’t usually associated with feminism or beauty pageants, and a competition named “Mrs. Pakistan” might normally be assumed to happen in Pakistan, not Canada.  So yeah, there are some people who would find apparent contradictions – or, at least, surprises – in all of the labels that Bokhari carries.

But the focus on the supposed contradictions (emphasized by both journalists and, at times, by Bokhari herself) starts to feel like the unhelpful “Wow!  Look at those Muslim women breaking stereotypes!” trope, which I wrote about recently in reference to an article about female Muslim activists.  It’s not always wrong or completely out of place, but it does tend to reinforce the existing stereotypes by pointing to the fact that this is a contradiction, and that if we have difficulty grasping it, this relates to the exceptional nature of the woman herself, and not to our own preconceptions of what we thought she would be like.  In other words, it lets the audience off the hook, and leaves their prejudices unexamined.

And even if Bokhari truly does embody an unexpected combination of qualities, really, we’re all human, and humans are complex beings.  Having multiple identities isn’t something new.  The repeated “but” in the local newspaper article ignores the fact that there are thousands of people who are Canadian and Pakistani, and a whole lot of people who are Muslim and feminist.  We don’t need to keep talking about these things as if they should be assumed to preclude each other.

In contrast, this blog post from Change.Org does a much better job of toning down the sensationalism, and looking more openly at the multiple facets of Bokhari’s identity.  It begins with an acknowledgement that “women don’t have to fit into neat little role boxes,” and that “Bokhari refreshingly sees continuity between being a Muslim, a feminist, a beauty queen, an activist, a scholar, a consultant, a writer, and an advocate for contesting the media’s portrayals of Muslims, Islam, and women.” (my emphasis)  Attempts to “pin women down” into categories are seen as problems with the media’s mindset, and not as neutral realities to be overcome only by the exceptional few.  The writer concludes with:

What a concept: beauty doesn’t have to exclude intelligence, feminism doesn’t have to exclude Islam, passionate work and activism don’t have to trump family life, sexuality, and cultural ties. Women can embody all of these things without having to slap any particular label on their foreheads. Liberation, indeed.

Of course, Bokhari is still talked about here in terms of her multiple identities; although the writer does much more to challenge the assumptions made about these identities, Bokhari doesn’t exactly get the chance to just “be,” without any of this being an issue at all.  However, if we are going to be talking about the diverse categories in which Bokhari places herself, this last post demonstrates, at the very least, that celebrating someone’s accomplishments doesn’t have to mean reinforcing the stereotypes that made the person’s identity appear unlikely.  It can even include a critical look at the systems and structures that lead people to see her as a contradiction or as an exception to an unexamined rule.

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