Beauty in the eye of the political storm

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Can the skin-deep world of the Miss Israel beauty pageant help combat the ugly face of discrimination and prejudice against Palestinians in Israel?

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): "I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me."

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): “I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me.”

Yityish Aynaw, or Titi as she is known to her friends, became the first woman of Ethiopian origin to win the Miss Israel contest. Like winners of the beauty lottery everywhere, Aynaw’s crowning has thrust her from obscurity into the limelight.

But her victory has a political dimension that is often missing from the skin-deep world of beauty contests: Aynaw comes from one of Israel’s most marginalised ethnic groups. Some have interpreted the Ethiopian beauty queen’s victory as a sign of Israeli tolerance, and of how Ethiopians are becoming increasingly integrated and mainstream.

However, in the absence of substantive change, Aynaw’s success could prove little more than a Botox injection – and the ugly face of discrimination will again sag. Nevertheless, many in the community celebrated that one of their number has become queen for a year. “For people from my country of origin it is a source of great pride,” asserted Aynaw.

And Aynaw has not just inspired members of her own ethnic group. Mimas Abdelhai, a Palestinian-Israeli, has been mulling the idea of taking part in Miss Israel since last year. “I have been so scared to make this decision and to even talk to the people closest to me about it,” admits Abdelhai, who is a student of government at a top private Israeli college. “But this year’s winner gave me strength and encouraged me to make this decision.”

Unlike Aynaw, who entered the Miss Israel pageant to pursue her modelling aspirations, Abdelhai’s motives are largely political and cultural. “Miss Israel is different to beauty contests in other countries. The title comes with a social and political dimension, especially if a contestant comes from a minority background,” she explains.

And for Israel’s 1.6-million-strong Palestinian minority, usually referred to locally as ‘Arab Israelis’, this “political dimension” is a massive one, perched precariously as the community is on the main fault line of a decades-old conflict, as Rana Raslan, who won the title in 1999, discovered.

Although Palestinian-Israelis often welcomed Raslan’s unprecedented victory, especially in her hometown of Haifa, many Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Arabs in the wider region reacted angrily, and tended to view the spectacle with distaste and distrust.

Distaste because the idea that an Arab would openly wear the label “Israeli”, carry the Israeli flag and represent Israel on the world stage is anathema, especially with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still living under the crushing boot of occupation. Distrust because people fear the propaganda mileage the Israeli establishment would try to extract from such a high-profile success, though one that is ultimately non-threatening.

And true enough, Bibi Netanyahu wasted no time. “This is a clear manifestation of equality and co-operation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,”   he said at the time. One of the Miss Israel judges, Pnina Rosenblum, went even further, extrapolating that this showed Israelis “want a true peace”.

Though many Israelis applauded Raslan’s victory, in rightwing nationalist and religious circles little in the way of “equality and co-operation”, or aspirations for “true peace”, were on display, as reflected in the fan(atical) mail the beauty queen received urging her to renounce her crown in favour of a Jew.

This raises the poignant question of why Mimas Abdelhai would want to step into this political minefield. “[Participation] automatically gains political attention. With that attention and connections, I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me,” she says, belying her political aspirations encompassed in the name of the party with which she became involved during the recent elections, Hope for Change.

And those matters? Raising the profile of her community and drawing attention to the discrimination it faces, representing her generation and her gender, as well as highlighting the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and acting as an ambassador for peace and a bridge for coexistence.

And handling the inevitable public fallout? “Of course, there will be those to object on both sides and I understand why,” Abdelhai acknowledges. “My parents are scared about the controversy the possibility of me competing might cause [but] I am strong enough to face this controversy,” she adds, noting that she would only take part if she can win her parents over.

Although I have serious misgivings about the political spin the Israeli establishment would put on anther Israeli beauty queen who happens to be Arab, what the rejectionists on both sides overlook is that Palestinian-Israelis, whether people like it or not, are not just Israelis by citizenship, but are increasingly “Israeli” culturally.

Political discourse is, in fact, lagging drastically behind reality. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarised than ever, and identity politics grow, a new generation of Palestinian-Israelis has grown up quietly in the background with a very mixed cultural heritage, as I discovered.

Some acknowledge that they are both Palestinian and Israeli, while even those who reject or are uncomfortable with the “Israeli” label often recognize the influence of Israeli society on them. And this influence has been two-way, if you consider how much Palestinian culture Israeli Jews have assimilated over the decades, from food to language, and more.

In the case of Abdehai, she speaks natural Hebrew, her formal Arabic is underdeveloped and she has spent more of her educational career among Israeli Jews than Arabs. But with her state at war with her nation, as one prominent Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, juggling these two cultures causes an identity crisis.

“In my university right now, I’m the only Palestinian,” Abdelhai told me in an interview for my book. Being a minority of one “is sometimes very scary. It feels very uncomfortable. I’m not sure I can represent where I come from in the right way. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”

The flip side is that being educated in the Israeli and international systems, despite the opportunities they have offered, have also somewhat alienated her from the mainstream of her community. “I find it hard to befriend people in my hometown,” Abdelhai admits. “The things I do and the things I like doing are very different.”

Although I am sceptical that a beauty contest can make any meaningful political difference, the rise of a new, assertive generation like Abdelhai’s can and will challenge lazy prejudices and artificial dichotomies, while the blurring of rigid identities could point a way forward towards peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

And like Mohammad Assaf demonstrated in Gaza with his Arab Idol victory, the feel-good factor and pride cultural success can elicit for an embattled community can be at least as important as its possible political utility.

Moreover, even if it does little immediately for the integration of Palestinians in Israeli society and even if there are influential forces in Israeli society trying to arrest or reverse what gains there have been, this kind of assertive gesture is a reminder to the mainstream that “we are here too and we will not be ignored.”

“This country should embrace its diversity because I believe that’s what makes its special,” Abdelhai urges.

This hints at the two-tired but complementary nature of the Palestinian struggle: for greater integration and empowerment within Israeli society, and for enfranchisement and national self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 9 July 2013.

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Ugly discrimination in the face of beauty

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By Khaled Diab

The curious case of Arab men reportedly deported for being “too handsome” demonstrates that the beautiful can also be the victims of discrimination.

Friday 10 May 2013

Imagine a land where beautiful people are so stigmatised that they are banished simply for their looks. Does it sound like a sci-fi fantasy dystopia?

Well, this is exactly what reportedly happened to three Emirati men on a business trip in Saudi Arabia who were apparently deported for being “too handsome”.

The men were detected and ejected by Saudi’s notorious “morality police”, the mutaween, also known by their formal Orwellian-sounding title, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, who “feared female visitors would fall for them”.

When I first read about this, I wondered how the mutaween had decided these men were too hot to handle. Did they do it scientifically, say with some high-tech gadget that monitors seismic activity caused by collective gasps of approval or a sort of Geiger counter that measures the fallout from radioactive beauty, counted in Cutie units? Or did they have a panel of judges, like some sort of warped beauty contest, who held up scorecards, with the winner receiving a one-way ticket home?

Since the hunks’ return to the neighbouring Emirates, no reports have emerged of any fallout from the radioactive presence of these killer men – though I should be careful using that description of Arabs in these suspicious times.

Nevertheless, if the mutaween had hoped to keep a lid on the affair and spare women the undoubted agony and suffering prolonged exposure would almost certainly cause, they failed desperately. Not only has the story gone super-viral around the world, a crowd-sourced manhunt has already uncovered the probable identity of one of the Arabian thoroughbreds.

In a world where Arab men are seen mainly in the negative – not so much as fun but rather as fundamentalist, never fans but always fanatics – I, who never read gossip or glossies, was mildly pleased that the much-maligned male from my part of the world was getting, so to speak, a media facelift.

Of course, some of the attention in the West was somewhat condescending, of the “look-what-those-weird-Arabs-are-doing-now” variety, rather like the mirthful reactions to news reports of camel beauty pageants.

But is it really so hard to believe that some people’s beauty can cause them trouble or even that attractive people can be discriminated against? These men may have been sent home, but boy did the experience raise their street cred and made of them minor celebrities, even if the identities of two of them are still shrouded in mystery.

Others have not been so fortunate. Take Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant who lost her livelihood for no other reason than her boss found her too attractive.

Naturally, this goes against the overwhelming stereotype of beauty, and how it serves its owner. And as endless studies have regularly shown, good looks can help people get ahead in life, from getting laid to getting a job or promotion – and even, rather dubiously, make them happier than their more mortal peers.

In fact, for some careers, such as the glamorous mainstream of acting and the media, good looks are more often than not an essential, if unofficial, qualification. There is even, I have learned, a term to describe this sort of positive discrimination in favour of the beautiful people: “lookism”.

In contrast, bad looks are a well-known source of discrimination, a social handicap for their bearers. Not only are people endowed with fewer physical assets often disadvantaged in life and love, the very semantics of language subliminally slaps them in the face – and the title of this article is no exception. When we disapprove of something or wish to say it was really horrendous or terrible, we regularly employ this alienated and lonely adjective: an ugly situation, the ugly face of warfare, the ugly underbelly of poverty, etc.

Although I won’t for a moment suggest that there is equivalence, beautiful people don’t always have it their way and can be the victims of discrimination. This can be seen in the age-old bias that beauty and brains can rarely be united in the same body. This leads to stereotypes that attractive people, particularly women, are likely to be shallow – consider all those dumb blonde jokes or the idea that hunky men who take care of their appearance are hollow airheads.

This can be a real problem for good-looking people. For instance, though looks serve them in “feminine jobs”, attractive women trying to get ahead in professions that require intelligence or authority or toughness do face discrimination.

For example, I have met young female professionals, including scientists, who complain that male colleagues, especially older ones, don’t always take them seriously. One attractive but tough-as-nails woman I know who works in the construction industry says, perhaps counter-intuitively, that she has no trouble with her subordinates, but her peers exhibit hostility and disrespect towards her.

In addition, there is the issue of harassment. Though unwanted amorous or sexual attention is not the exclusive domain of attractive people, it is more likely to occur if the target happens to be beautiful – and, again, a woman. In public, what is taken as aloofness, can sometimes simply be a defensive mechanism against unsolicited interest. Even flattering gestures such as holding doors open for attractive women or providing them with more favourable treatment or greater attention can cause distress to those of them who wish to be treated as equals and ordinary.

Moreover, extreme beauty can be alienating. Incredibly attractive – gorgeous, I believe, is the technical term – people may well draw many advantages from their physical assets, but their looks can also act like a chasm separating them from their peers, making natural, casual interactions difficult, with many members of their own gender viewing them with suspicion and those of the opposite sex typically acting flustered or nervous in their company.

This hostile reaction to beauty can be seen in the traditional view that being too beautiful was somehow immoral. It can also be discerned in music and song, in which the gorgeous are often attributed with negative characteristics like cruelty and vanity. Take Alice Cooper telling us that his lover’s blood is “like ice” and her lips are like “venomous poison”.

Though we may try to curb it, we will never end discrimination based on looks. And it would seem that nature and evolution have disposed us with a natural bias towards beauty, however subjective and frivolous that concept can be. Nevertheless, while the beautiful set may seem to have the world at their feet, we must remember that not all that glitters is gold and beauty has its unattractive underbelly too.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 2 May 2013.

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Miss USA 2010 and an Islamic cover-up

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By Khaled Diab

Rima Fakih’s Miss USA win is welcomed by many Arab-Americans, but some neocons denounce it as a sinister Islamic plot.

Monday 24 May 2010

When beauty contests mix with geopolitics, things can get rather ugly. This was demonstrated last weekend by the crowning of Rima Fakih as Miss USA, the first Arab-American and Muslim to win the title.

The 24-year-old, who moved to the United States from her native Lebanon in the early 1990s, was understandably proud to become the crowned figurehead of American beauty for a year. She, her family and many Arab-Americans also hope her victory will give her embattled and distrusted community a much-needed facelift.

“My father always says, ‘You don’t know who you are until you know where you come from’. I believe in that,” Fakih says.

Her brother, Rabih, believes his sister challenges prevalent western stereotypes of the Muslim woman: “This will show the good part of Arab-Americans. A lot of people think this area of the world is only about people being covered.”

The western image of Muslim women is largely shrouded in the veils – in the form of hijabs, niqabs and burqas – of a grand patriarchal cover-up. This partly explains the mirth and amusement derived from stories of Arabs organising beauty contests for their camels and goats, or crowning Miss Beautiful Morals.

Less widely covered or known is the fact that, despite the objections of conservative Muslims, many Arab and Muslim countries run beauty contests of a similar ilk to their western counterparts. In some ways it’s hardly surprising that the first Arab-American Miss USA – which I’ve discovered is actually different from Miss America – should happen to be Lebanese.

Lebanon is a country where glamour and beauty are a major export industry in the form of sexy singers, both female and male. As a sign of this, its own Miss Lebanon title comes with a $500,000 prize and, in Rima Fakih’s words, elicits a kind of “Superbowl” fever among Lebanese.

Other Arab and Muslim beauty contests include Miss Egypt and Miss Indonesia, not to mention the less racy but more inclusive – in terms of dress and dress size – Miss Arab World. Beauty contests were even used as a propaganda tool by Saddam Hussein, with the 2000 crown won by his 15-stone niece.

I am in two minds about the value of beauty contests. On the one hand, they reflect the misogynistic objectification of the female body – even if we do have a few male equivalents nowadays. On the other, celebrating physical beauty is often just innocent fun in the eyes of its beholders and people should be proud of their bodies. The trouble here is the ever-narrowing definition of what constitutes beauty and how this can trigger low self-esteem, eating disorders and other psychological problems.

And when it comes to Muslim women, beauty contests, despite their tedious superficiality, can be a form of empowerment. As a type of metaphorical bra-burning, they allow women to shed the stifling skin of the modest garments conservative Muslims would like to shackle them in and enable them, in an act of subversion to propriety, to revel in their beauty.

At another level, this challenges the easy and lazy stereotypes that anti-Muslim bigots depend on for their demonisation. And Fakih’s victory has left the influential outer fringes of the conservative right in something of a pickle: they don’t like it that an Arab and Muslim has won but are having trouble forming a coherent case against her, so instead they have resorted to bizarre conspiracy theories.

Daniel Pipes, a neocon intellectual closely linked to the former Bush administration, compiled a list of five other Muslim winners of beauty contests on both sides of the Atlantic (mostly minor ones, including Miss Nottingham 2005), and asked whether this was “an odd form of affirmative action”.

Conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel pulled out all the stops, using Fakih’s Shia Lebanese background to brand her a terrorist “Miss Hezbollah” and dismissed the colourful business magnate Donald Trump, who is one of the sponsors of the event, as an Islamic “dhimmi”.

“Mark my word. Hezbollah is laughing at us, tonight,” Schlussel raged. And why? Obviously, because “one of its auxiliary members won the Miss USA title without having to do a thing to denounce them and their bloody murder of hundreds of Americans”.

Schlussel does not provide details of Fakih’s alleged Hezbollah connection, except to quote unnamed “intelligence sources” who apparently confirm that some of her family members are linked to it. But, given the fact that, in addition to its armed wing, Hezbollah is a large political party, social service provider and the de facto government of the predominantly Shia south, the vast majority of Lebanese Shia – and even many Sunnis and Christians – are inextricably tied with the party. In fact, this is even less meaningful than saying an Israeli has links with the IDF, as pretty much all Israelis, even pacifist peace activists, have family ties with the country’s military.

Another problem Schlussel’s conspiracy theory runs up against is the fact that Hezbollah, being a conservative Islamic organisation, it is unlikely to be recruiting a scantily clad beauty queen as an agent provocateur. In a contorted effort to explain this, Schlussel falls back on an old neocon chestnut: “Muslims frequently go against Islam in this way for propaganda purposes. It’s a form of taqiyyah, the Muslim concept of deceiving infidels.”

But this reveals a complete and utter misunderstanding of the concept. Derived from the Arabic for “to guard against”, taqiyya is a notion which allows Shia Muslims – in periods of imminent danger and persecution – to conceal their faith in order to avoid harm. That it should be a Shia concept is perhaps understandable, and this has little to do with “infidels”, but is because of the persecution they have endured over the centuries from their Sunni co-religionists.

I very much doubt that, despite the venom of Schlussel and other conservatives, Fakih feels threatened in the United States. She strikes me as a young woman who loves her adoptive and native homeland and wishes to act as a cultural bridge between the two.

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 18 May 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Beauty and the bleat

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By Khaled Diab

Are Saudi Arabian beauty shows for goats as weird and outlandish as they seem?

23 November 2009

Can a man kill a goat armed with little more than his eyes? Well, the US military seemed willing to believe in the possibility of such superhuman powers, as revealed in The men who stare at goats, Jon Ronson’s book about how the American army investigated the application of psychic power in combat situations which has been turned into a film starring George Clooney.

Another group of people who believe in the eye’s destructive power on four-legged bovidae are Saudi breeders of pedigree goats for competitions. “Like everything else, goats are also believed by some to be affected by the evil eye,” writes Omaima al-Fardan in Arab News.

One luckless goat-trader claimed that he had tried to revive his prize goat’s ardour, after he had allegedly been struck by the evil eye, by using Viagra. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. And this kind of smiting can cause a big dent in the wallet, given that a thoroughbred newborn Damascene goat can fetch as much as 50,000 riyals (about £8,000) – I kid you not.

That goats can have a pedigree may come as something of a surprise to many outsiders, especially Europeans, for whom goats, if they appear at all in the popular imagination, tend to be associated with lust and evil – recall that popular depictions of Satan have him sporting a goat’s horns and hooves, not to mention a goatee. Of course, goats do produce the most beautiful fabrics in the world, such as cashmere wool.

The animal has become so prized in contemporary Saudi Arabia that last year the kingdom held its very first goat ‘beauty contest’. Reflecting the novelty of the event (or possibly nepotism), most of the participants were descendants of a single patriarchal goat, the fiery Burgan (Volcano) – you could call him the Abraham of pedigree goats, you know the one who had to sacrifice his son so that Ismail/Isaac, depending on the version, would be let off the hook.

The winner in the male category was a son of Burkan who fetched a staggering 450,000 riyals. In fact, the goatly patriarch has made his owner a neat 8 million riyals to date.

In an ultra-conservative country where the nearest thing to a female beauty pageant is the Miss Beautiful Morals contest, the outlandishness of goats strutting their stuff on a catwalk is fertile breeding ground for all kinds of goat-related jokes and innuendos, similar to the ones provoked by camel beauty shows (where as much as $3 million have been paid for thoroughbred camels).

But are goat and camel pageants so strange? Saudi Arabia may have its camel and goat contests, but the West has its equally surreal cat and dog shows. To an outsider (and many insiders), how weird is it to see manicured, pedicured and shampooed hounds and felines being paraded in all earnestness before judges?

How must the world’s poorest citizens react to the news that our cats and dogs are often better fed than they are? In fact, it turns out that, if a recent book is to be believed, the average western dog lives off more land than the average Ethiopian.

Then, there are thoroughbred horses (a trend also, incidentally, started by the Arabs). Last year, for instance, an American stables paid a staggering $14 million for a horse named Better than Honour (for that price, I should hope she is).

So, why all the jokes? Part of the reason is the exoticness of other societies’ fetishes. In addition, this particular brand of humour has an ancient pedigree, stemming as it does from centuries of Western suspicion towards the ‘licentious’ Arab and his shady intimacy with the ‘ship of the desert’. Growing up in London, I was constantly asked by wits of clone-like originality if I came to school on a camel and whether my parents owned an oil field – I was even advised “not to get the hump” if I exhibited any impatience with these wearisome questions.

That’s not to say that there’s no truth to the Arab soft spot for camels. Although this most powerful and versatile of desert beasts has become obsolete in the modern age, except in the most isolated of desert communities, its place as a cultural icon lives on, particularly in Arabia proper.

But given the enormous economic, political and social role camels over the centuries, this is no great surprise. After all, the Arab conquest of the Middle East was achieved on the backs of camels, whose mobility and stamina proved conclusive in battles fought over great distances. Moreover, camels helped the Arab and Islamic worlds dominate the global trading system for centuries.

Of course, Arabs are not alone in suffering from this kind of humour. Basically, any peoples with whom you share a historical rivalry are fair game when it comes to insinuations of bestiality. Consider, for example, all those Welsh sheep jokes.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 21 November 2009. Read the related discussion.

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