Wednesday, March 17, 2010
A Yemeni Canadian will compete in the Miss Universe Canada beauty pageant for the first time, wearing a sari over her bathing suit to avoid offence.
The press release issued by Maria Al-Masani's company about her participation contained a scant three paragraphs. In it, she refers to herself as "a documented direct descendent of Prophet Mohammed."
"Yemen is a conservative Islamic country better known for the underwear bomber," the release notes. It also quotes Ms. Al-Masani: "I grew up wearing a niqab, watching Miss Universe on TV," she says. "I love breaking stereotypes!"
The story behind Ms. Al-Masani, however, is more nuanced than that. The contestant runs her own public relations company in Ottawa and originally applied to Miss Universe Canada as a joke. Her friends call her a "Political Econo-Nerd," she said during an interview on Wednesday. She peppered the pageant application with references to Derrida, Nietzsche and Kant.
Born in Russia, Ms. Al-Masani's family moved to Yemen when she was four years old. She left when she was 16; she stopped wearing a niqab then, saying the facial covering is "un-Islamic." Her studies eventually brought her to Ottawa and Carleton University, where she fell in love with Canada.
Rather than wear a bikini for the pageant's swimsuit segment, Ms. Al-Masani, a Sufi Muslim, plans to cover her body with a sari for cultural reasons. The judges will not dock her points for her choice, she said.
"There's no way as a Yemeni that I would ever, ever walk in front of cameras in a bikini," said Ms. Al-Masani, 25. "I'd rather be caught dead."
Beauty and talent competitions are often controversial in countries with high Muslim populations. In 2002, the Miss World competition was moved to London from Nigeria "for the sake of the nation," after more than 100 people died in sectarian violence. The riots continued.
And last year, a female contestant in Afghanistan's version of American Idol attracted criticism from conservatives, who argued she was having a negative influence on the country's girls. Her family went underground after they received death threats.
As word of Ms. Al-Masani's participation in Miss Universe Canada reached Yemenis in Canada yesterday, it shocked people in both good and bad ways, said Ahmed Al-Awah, head of the Yemeni-Canadian Relations Council. For traditional Yemenis, the pageant "doesn't represent ... the tradition of Yemeni society," Mr. Al-Awah said from Calgary.
"Personally, I enjoy that we have Yemeni representation," he said. "The Yemeni-Canadian population hasn't been as active as it can be in Canadian society -- especially recently, after the Nigerian bomber Christmas Day attacks."
Events like this will help engage the Yemeni-Canadian community with the public sphere, Mr. Al-Awah explained.
"It's her choice. Why not?" said Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. "She's making a choice, and it's a brave one, in many ways."
Ms. Al-Masani hopes to use the pageant to promote her work building a hospital for women in Somalia and how alternative dispute resolution can be applied to international conflicts.
She also hopes her participation in the pageant will help her convince a teenaged niece in Russia to continue with her studies. "Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan -- those are the role models my niece looks up to. Women in Hollywood don't go for university."
"I'm going to be walking around the stage in the big, poofy dress that she appreciates, with hair and makeup done. When I cross that stage, she respects me. "Now I can finally get through to her."
Miss Universe Canada will be held in Toronto in June.
Picture: Maria Al-Masani will be the first Yemeni Canadian to compete in Miss Universe Canada. Photo: Lois Siegel/Canwest News Service