September 2, 2006
The Canberra Times

Babes in veils dance to a whole new beat for young Islamic women

So, 16-year-old Melbourne schoolgirl Ayten Ahmet wants to be a teen beauty queen. Why any girl would subject herself to a mindless cattle call is baffling enough. But putting aside the disturbing re-emergence of the vapid beauty parade – and the rise of a celebrity-obsessed raunch culture – Ayten’s desire to be ”a positive role model” is nevertheless worthy of note.

You see, Ayten is a Muslim. Therefore her quest to become a beauty queen is laden with contradiction. Or is it?

Having beaten hundreds of other hopefuls to make it through to the Miss Teen Australia short list this week, no doubt Ayten is feeling pretty positive right now. And good luck to her. But Ayten, an aspiring model, has a tough road ahead. Sure she has a sweet face and a winning smile. But she also has the wrath of Allah upon her. Or so it would seem.

Melbourne cleric Sheik Mohammed Omran has reportedly slammed Ayten’s participation in the pageant as a ”slur on Islam”.

Needless to say, young Ayten is ”shocked” at the attack and can’t understand what all the fuss is about. She just wants to be ”positive”. She says the beauty quest is not about religion, and her dad apparently agrees, saying it’s just ”a fun day”. Nevertheless, Sheik Omran told a Melbourne newspaper that ”Muslim girls who do this are ignorant of what their religion teaches and should learn their religion”. Well, perhaps the sheik would do well to learn a little more about what some of the rest of the world’s millions of young Muslim girls are doing, wearing and thinking. With Islam the second-largest religion in the world, and now the second-largest in Britain, it was no surprise last year when the glittering Miss England crown was finally bestowed upon the ravishing locks of a Muslim beauty.

Accepting the sash, 18-year-old Hammasa Kohistani spoke of how she desperately wanted to win the Miss World title as a way of ”thanking” England, her adopted country. She didn’t win the big one, but it must have been a narrow miss, as Hammasa, whose parents are refugees from Afghanistan and who speaks six languages, is indeed an all- round beauty. As is Australia’s current Miss World hopeful, Sabrina Houssami from Sydney. A 20-year- old student, who lists her proudest moment as ”when she was accepted for Mensa”, Sabrina also happens to be a Muslim. But religion, according to this beauty queen, is a ”private matter”. Sabrina will be competing in the Miss World final in Poland at the end of this month, and, yes, she will parade in a swimsuit.

And while bikinis may be out of bounds for those who prefer the full coverage of a burqa, there’s nevertheless long elastic stretching the limits of what’s cool, hip and acceptable among young Muslim women today.

Last month I was in Rome and wandered down the fashionistas’ mecca, Via Condotti. Foolishly I popped into Prada. Perhaps it was the heat – or perhaps it was the 3000 euro price tag I encountered – but suddenly dizziness propelled me out the door and clumsily straight into the path of three giggling young Muslim girls making their way in.

It wasn’t the embarrassing clash, or their sweet apologies that struck me. It was the sight of the sexy, black, lace bustier visible under the gaping pink hijab head scarf that caught me off guard. As did the trio’s stilettos, their skin-tight, hipster black pants, diamante-edged and colourful hijabs, along with shimmering eye make-up and glossy lips. Don’t get me wrong: they were gorgeous. They just took me by surprise. Moments later I realised I had just had my first encounter with ”muhajababes”. A rapidly growing demographic, ”muhajababes” are those young, groovy Muslim women who are devout enough to veil (”Muhajaba” means girl who veils) but who are, well – babes.

Like young chickee babes the world over, muhajababes are into fashion, music, advertising and videos. Their idols are hot young Arabic pop princesses, whose music video clips smoulder with sexy innuendo that makes Britney Spears look lame.

British journalist and author Allegra Stratton has documented the lives, loves and obsessions of these young women in her book Muhajababes. ”I was to see them everywhere as I travelled across the Middle East”, she says. ”These were ostensibly traditional girls, but with a surprising, sassy, modern twist.”

And with two-thirds of Arabs in the Middle East under the age of 25, Stratton found the increasing prevalence of muhajababes is seriously testing issues of Muslim modesty – or at least, Western perceptions of it.

So what makes these girls tick? Stratton found that like any group of young people in the 21st century, muhajababes are big on celebrity. The TV sensation of recent years has been an Arabic version of Australian Idol, called Superstar, which claims to have auditioned 40,000 contestants in 15 Arab countries. One of the most successful TV song- contest winners, and super-heroine to the muhajababes, is Nancy Ajram. Her most famous single, Ya Salaam, (How Fantastic) is performed by the 23-year-old in a racy video clip supposedly based on the hit film Chicago. But, no kidding, this gorgeous, shimmering Lebanese nymphet leaves Catherine Zeta- Jones for dead. Nancy oozes sex.

Not only do the muhajababes love her. The Arabic version of Newsweek last year named Ajram one of the most influential people in the Arab world.

Another video-clip pop idol adored by the muhajababes, according to Stratton, is the curvaceous, cleavage- driven, Haifa Wehbe. Born to a Shi’ite father and a Christian mother, Haifa’s pulsating, pink website claims ”even Saddam Hussein’s grandsons” are fans. And they’re not the only ones. An American men’s online magazine voted her No49 among the world’s most desirable women. (Funny, isn’t it, how lust unites?)

No doubt the old Melbourne cleric who’s cross with Ayten – the Muslim teen queen wannabe – would be mortified by these Arabic pop princesses, and their veiled fans the muhajababes. But clearly there’s a whole new beat going on for some young Muslim women. And it’s a beat with jive. Their jive.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

Related Media

May 1, 2024
Future Woman podcast
Hear Virginia on Future Woman with Helen McCabe
March 31, 2024
Our Radicals and Revolutionaries: Women’s Liberation
The chaps from ASIO were hiding across the road from the Canning Street house in Ainslie. None of the eight...
March 9, 2024
Meta may not care about Australian news but it’s the soul of our communities
I once rang a convent of catholic nuns in Melbourne, to ask if the Sister in charge might have a...
February 17, 2024
Joining the ‘first lady’ club: oh Jodie, what have you done?
So Jodie Haydon said ‘yes’, right at a time when women around the globe are increasingly saying ‘no’ to marriage....
August 14, 2023
Radicals, Rebels and Reformers: a clarion call from the Sisterhood
Oh, they were mad! Furious. Those wild ‘women’s libbers’. Noisy as hell and heading for the Canberra Times, driven by...
July 24, 2023
Barbie lands an unresolved feminist rant, but the joke is on us!
There is a fabulous moment in the history of the Canberra Women’s Movement when over a hundred furious feminists barged...