Meanderings on Miss Moral Beauty

Fully covered by a full-length black abaya, 18-year-old Aya Ali al-Mulla, a high school graduate with high marks who hopes to go into medicine, beat out 274 other contestants for the title of Saudi Arabia's Miss Moral Beauty, and received prizes valuing over 5,000 Riyal (or $1,300 USD). But one night of corporeal attractiveness and a brief Q&A does not a moral beauty make; success in this competition is gained by a three-month-long observation and judging of the contestant's "dutifulness to parents and family," "service to society," "psychological state-of-mind," and "social and cultural awareness." And there's no faking that.

Though my kneejerk reaction was something like, "This is bullsh*t!" I decided a look beyond the impulse and meander through the convergence/divergence of feminism and a moral beauty pageant. What struck me was the similarity in sentiment espoused by the spokesperson for Miss Moral Beauty and feminists who protest traditional beauty contests for their objectification of women.

Judging a woman by something other than a pretty, makeup laden face and stick-thin physique is an idea I think most feminists can get down with; in fact, it sounds like something straight out of a pageant protestor's platform. For the judges of Miss Moral Beauty, beauty is something that is (and should be) located beyond a woman's physicality, and instead of focusing on a woman's body, they believe one should determine beauty by a person's thoughts and actions. Pretty feminist-y, right? But you probably feel like something about this is sticking in your feminist craw—and I think I know what it is.

Who determines what thoughts and actions are beautiful? In the case of the Miss Moral Beauty contest, the rightness of the contestants thoughts and actions are determined by the Islamic standards of Saudi Arabia, which is where some (but not all) would say feminism and Miss Moral Beauty part ways.

Deepak Iyer attempts to clear things up a bit:

The only problem is when men start looking for those exact qualities in their women, forcing a widespread shift towards those qualities…But then that is true of most pageants and the culprit here is the willfulness of women to change for men, not what they change to.

Ah-hah! Is that what is missing from the analysis: Miss Moral Beauty is a construction of men while anti-pageantry feminism is a construction of women? Well, yes and no. Though I wish this post could be that tidily ended, I can't help but feel that one dogma is as limiting as the next and question the idea that we need to end particular behaviors themselves instead of calling to the mat the values and assumptions behind those behaviors. By and for whom was this anti-pageant version of feminism constructed? What women aren't represented in that brand of feminist ideology, and why aren't they represented? Replacing one hierarchy with another isn't an adequate solution, and I think Miss Moral Beauty makes that clear.

Hijab and Abaya fashion photos from Hijab Style

Radical Muslim feminist photo by Laggard and of Farheen Hakeem

by Mandy Van Deven
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10 Comments Have Been Posted


The "radical Muslim feminist" t-shirt was created by (and can be purchased at)

Miss Moral: also kind of a looker!

What strikes me about Miss Moral Beauty is that she is judged both by her moral aptitude as well as her physical beauty in that way that sometimes seems to suggest that women need to have it all to be of value. It's a troubling construction of ideal femininity just as it is troubling that the "working mom" is sometimes exalted as ideal, while both the career-centered woman and the stay-at-home mom are deemed equally bad. When something is a competition that implies that what is being competed for is a scarce resource. By that logic, pageants make praise, validation and celebration for women's bodies, minds and deeds a scarce resource. Oh. I just made myself sad.

Judge me, please.

The problem as I see it (and maybe this is a reiteration of what's been said) is that this is still a pageant. The idea that we should replace a "bad' pageant with a "good" pageant is COMPLETELY missing the point.

The purpose of a pageant is to JUDGE WOMEN. The criteria for which we base our judgments is irrelevant. The purpose is to say "this woman is better than this woman," be it for beauty or brains: "This woman is the ideal".

So, for me, that's where the "this is bullshit" comes in. And it is. Anytime we're putting people on display and judging them, the reason we are judging them is irrelevant. The message: men pop out of the womb valuable, but women must gain value by competing with each other and by being judged by men.

Pageant culture is disgusting and psychologically damaging, and speaks volumes about the societies that support them.

The Culprit Is Women!

Upon a reread, one line in particular stood out:

" . . . the culprit here is the willfulness of women to change for men, not what they change to."

This sentiment can perhaps be shortened to: "the culprit here is women."

Doesn't that just sum it up? Once again women are blamed for their own degradation. How dare a woman attempt to find acceptance in a society that only values her if she transforms herself into the highest ideal? Punish her!

Hmmm . . .

shout out

just wanted to say that the woman in the radical muslim feminist t-shirt is a total badass and a friend of mine. she's an inspiration to many in the twin cities (and beyond i imagine) and it was a pleasant surprise to see her pic on here.

what a wonderful coincidence!

I'll add the link into the post itself. :)

Need to point something out...

First, to those who couldn't figure it out, the photo of the woman in Abaya is NOT Miss Moral Beauty. That is not part of the "pageant" at all. That is a photo from a fashion website that has nothing to do really with the article except to show some exotic "other" (i.e. a Muslim woman who covers).

Furthermore, what makes any of you so sure that MEN are deciding what makes a woman morally beautiful???? If men and women follow the SAME religion and have the same values is it so hard to believe that they agree on what is morally beautiful? A winner of such a contest would be admired by all Muslims (if they didn't have an issue with the contest to begin with). We, as Muslims, believe that nobody is better than anybody else except when it comes to our righteousness, and in the end that is for God to decide. Of course, during our lives we are able to judge, just as anyone else does, if we find somebody to be moral or not. God gave all humans the ability to do this.

Now, if you want to argue that religion is man made or whatnot then THAT is where we disagree. And THAT is where the argument would have to lie.

Feel free to argue amongst yourselves based on your own agreed upon values and beliefs but don't speak for us (we have our own)

There are two articles I suggest all of you read, one is Unveiled Frustrations Notes to Non-Muslims from a Muslim Woman and it can currently be found here:

The other is The Dos and Dont's of Defending Muslim Women which can be found here:

clarity. then clarity?

Angela, the photos are credited at the end of the post, but to expand on their relevance to the piece: <i>Hijab Style</i> is a fashion blog run by Jana Kossaibati, a Muslim woman living in the UK. The other photo is of Muslim feminist activist Farheen Hakeem and was taken at a protest event. The juxtaposition of the photos with the article demonstrates the diversity of meaning in Muslim women making the choice to wear a hijab--in the cases of the photos as fashion and political statements and in the case of Miss Moral Beauty as proof of adherence to particular religious and cultural mores. This further relates to the written aspect of the post, in which I am pressing readers to look beyond the surface of popular superficial arguments made by a certain brand of feminist dogmatism in order to see the varied and complex layers of intention and meaning and outcome.

I intentionally leave the question of men as the decision-makers regarding moral beauty unanswered and ambiguous because 1) the argument about male rule over women's place in Islam is not one for someone like me--that is, a non-Muslim--to determine, 2) there is much disagreement among Muslims on this issue, as you're well aware, and 3) I'm also not going to deny women's role in the shaping and perpetuation of the Islamic standards of Saudi Arabia (which is what determines the winner of the pageant), particularly as some of the judges of Miss Moral Beauty were women.

I don't agree with your argument that sameness is the necessary and obvious result of sharing a religious identification and "values" (the meaning of this term being extremely ambiguous), as homogeneity consistently fails to exist among individuals who lay claim to a particular group identification. You demonstrate this by saying that some Muslims may take issue with the pageant, so I'm not sure where the disconnect comes in.

Generally speaking, I'm not sure I understand where a great portion of your comment--which focuses on defending Islam despite Islam not having been attacked--has relevancy to this particular post. Perhaps you're responding to something in one of the comments? If not, can you expand further on where you see the connection?

Agreed...needs more clarity

Well stated. I could write more, but I would only be repeating most of what you already said. I did like the message of beauty being beyond the physical appearance, but I'm still trying to figure out if this pageant was even real or not.
Thanks for the critical response,

Wearing the veil means a lot

Wearing the veil means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I have a friend who is a Muslim and she was raised in Afghan-American family. She said that that most of her female relatives didn't wear hijab, and they made that choice because they felt that their commitment to their faith should be about more than wearing hijab, and that they should be able to have a private relationship with their religion without having their piety up for discussion.

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