Violence during the staging of the 2002 Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria sharply exposed the incompatibility of the understanding of beauty in the West with that of Muslims under Islam. As the reporter, Gamal Nkrumah, wrote in The Al-Ahram Weekly, “Beauty is only skin deep, but in Nigeria, it has assumed such profoundness that in the preparations to stage an international beauty queen pageant an estimated 250 lives were lost because of sectarian violence” (1). Denounced by Muslim leaders as a “parade of nudity” (2), riots were fuelled by an article in the Nigerian newspaper This Day, venturing the opinion that Muhammad himself would have enjoyed choosing a wife from the beauty pageant. Clearly, Islamic attacks by protesters chanting “Down with Beauty” reveal a deeply seated commitment to religious beliefs concerning the appropriate display of female beauty, not only in society at large but also within an all-encompassing context of religious government itself. What form does this understanding of beauty take under Islam, and how can its manifestation in the lives of women be reconciled with Western ideals of beauty culture?
Islam is a religion that pervades all areas of life for a Muslim, whether this is national in politics, social in the community or private in the home. Revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of God, the teachings in the Qur’an express God’s will for all humankind. Accordingly, the Qur’an gives guidance on the commitment or surrendering of the lives of Islamic Muslims to the will of Allah. Beauty is considered to be a divine quality and is articulated as such in Islamic art and architecture. An aesthetic joy of beauty is emphasized in calligraphy and pottery, and directs the serenity of contemplation when sitting on a traditional carpet. Beauty itself, therefore, is believed to emerge from spirituality and to guide the inner qualities of peace, harmony and equilibrium in artistic manifestations of the Islamic religion.
How does this divine, spiritual dimension of beauty impact on ideas of femininity in Islam? In the first instance, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are not considered to map precisely onto the biological sex of a person. Allah embraces principles of masculinity through being Absolute, and principles of femininity through being Infinite. In other words, elements of both masculinity and femininity are present in all men and women. However, the Qur’an reveals Allah as masculine under the name of Majesty ( jalal ) and feminine under the name of Beauty ( jamal ). This implies that femininity is understood foremost as an embodiment of beauty. Qualities associated with beauty are described in the names used in the Qur’an when Allah is revealed in a feminine context: the Generous, the Merciful, the Forgiving. It follows that, whilst masculinity is displayed outwardly, femininity is interiorized. Such qualities of feminine beauty are perhaps most eloquently portrayed in Sufi literature. The love story of Layla and Majnun shows how transcendent levels of meaning raise the heroine to the place of the Divine Reality waiting in stillness, spoken in terms of female beauty. Masculinity is depicted as an outward act as the hero goes in quest of the Divine beloved.
Criteria for female beauty can now be seen to derive directly from Islamic understandings of femininity, as revealed by Allah in the Qur’an. Women are expected to be silent, immobile and obedient. The Qur’an states explicitly that believing women should “lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons…” (3). The Qur’an instructs both men and women to observe the ‘hijab rules’:
1. The clothes worn by a man must cover the body at least from the navel to the knees. Those worn by a woman must cover the complete body except the face and hands. Head-to-toe garments worn by women include the Burqa,Chador and Hijab.
2. The clothes worn should be loose and should not reveal the figure.
3. The clothes worn should not be transparent such that one can see through them.
4. The clothes worn should not be so glamorous as to attract the opposite sex.
5. The clothes worn should not resemble that of the opposite sex.
6. The clothes worn should not resemble that of the unbelievers i.e. they should not wear clothes that are specifically identities or symbols of the unbelievers’ religions.
Full observation of these rules for women includes hijab of the eyes, heart, thought and intention. In other words, women are expected to guard their modesty and veil their beauty not only through their style of clothing but also in the way they walk, talk and behave. This is justified in the Qur’an as being a preventative measure against molestation: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad); that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested” (4). Indeed, testimonies of Muslim women defending their decision to wear the hijab or burqa in Western societies emphasize “its original purpose to give back to women ultimate control of their own bodies” (5). When the body is concealed, character judgements cannot be made on the basis of physical attributes. In this way, the hijab is regarded as providing both protection and equality to women in Islamic society.
However, these teachings have profound implications for women that go beyond a mere aesthetic appreciation of beauty. The Moroccan scholar, Fatna Sabbah argues that Islamic religious concepts of beauty lead to the dehumanisation and demonization of Muslim women (6). Although a divine quality, beauty provokes a desire in men that is believed to be sinful and satanic (shahwa ). Women are therefore associated with the devil through their beauty. Their appearance must be hidden from sight to enable men to control their desire. These dangerous connotations of female beauty are deeply rooted in Islamic religious history. The imam and orator Ibn al-Jawzi (1126-1200) taught, “the beauty of women is one of the poisoned arrows of the devil” (7). It could be argued therefore that, rather than offering protection and equality to women, the hijab functions to establish their position as a sex object by making them wholly responsible for not arousing the passions of men. Whilst Muslim women in Western societies may claim to feel liberated by their choice to wear the hijab , those in Islamic states who refused were frequently slashed with razors, had acid thrown in their faces, were killed or imprisoned for showing their bare arms and legs before they were required to cover their bodies by law. Notions of liberation in such circumstances are therefore questionable.
When Vida Samadzai walked down the catwalk in the 2003 Miss Earth contest, she became the first Afghan entrant in an international beauty pageant for 30 years. She was also warned by Fazel Ahmad Manawi, deputy head of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, that she could face prosecution if she returned to her native country. Her crime? Wearing a red bikini. Judges at the contest, on the other hand, awarded Samadzai a newly created ‘beauty for a cause’ award for ‘symbolizing the newfound confidence, courage and spirit of today’s women’ and “representing the victory of women’s rights and various social, personal and religious struggles” (8). Whether in Islamic or Western cultures, beauty pageants raise critics on both sides of the argument concerning displays of female beauty. Burqa or bikini – are women truly liberated by either of these?
(1) Nkrumah, G. (2002) ‘Beyond Salvation’, Al-Ahram Weekly , 28 Nov. – 4 Dec. 2002, Issue no.614
(2) BBC News, Miss World Nigeria boycott spreads , Friday, 6 September 2002.
(3) Al-Qur’an 24:31
(4) Al-Qur’an 33:59
(5) Mustafa, N. (1993) ‘My Body is my Own Business’, The Globe and Mail, June 29, Facts and Arguments Page (A26).
(6) Sabbah, F. (1984) Woman in the Muslim Unconscious , New York, Pergamon Press.
(7) In the text Dhamm al-hawa
(8) Sunday 9 November, 2003, Manila, Philippines: Miss Earth Contest.