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Covering Miss Beautiful Morals

May 8, 2009

This AP story about Saudi Arabia’s Miss Beautiful Morals pageant illustrates rather clearly some of the ways in which the US media others Muslim women. The problems begin with the very first sentence: “Sukaina al-Zayer is an unlikely beauty queen hopeful.” Unlikely? By what standards? American ones of course, the default set of values from which all others are considered to be deviations, the standards which elevate women who fit a particular narrow standard of physical beauty (or have surgery to make themselves fit it).

Notice, too, that of all the images available, including a few showing women engaged in writing, Huffington Post has chosen to highlight, by displaying at the top of the article, the image of a woman’s kohl-lined eyes surrounded by a scarf. This is a transparent  attempt  to use Orientalist sexualization to draw in readers. (Similarly, the Times Online article on the pageant has cropped an image of a woman who wears pink glasses to focus exclusively on her eyes and the veil around them.) This use and emphasis of “the veil” seems particularly ironic given that

Pageant hopefuls will also spend a day at a country house with their mothers, where they will be observed by female judges and graded on how they interact with their mothers, al-Mubarak said. Since the pageant is not televised and no men are involved, contestants can take off the veils and black figure-hiding abayas they always wear in public.

Then again, we also need to question why their being able remove “the veils” is considered so essential to include in the article. Once again, it is the absurd western focus on the veil at work; indeed it even appeals subtly to Orientalist desires to get “under the veil”.

The AP article moves on from there to illustrate the reporter’s preference for pageants closer to the style of Miss America:

The most dazzling is in Lebanon, the region’s most liberal country, where contestants appear on TV in one-piece swimsuits and glamorous evening gowns and answer questions that test their confidence and general knowledge.

Why exactly are swimsuits and evening gowns preferable? Right, those default American values again.

On the positive side, at least the reporter has included quotes from the women participating in the pageant:

Al-Zayer, a 24-year-old international management student, said she signed up because she is the “spitting image” of her mother. “I’m proud of my devotion to my parents,” she said . . .

Awsaf al-Mislim, another contestant, said if she does not win the crown, she will have won something more important.

“I will be proud to show everyone that I competed with the others over my devotion to my parents,” the 24-year-old said.

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