At Miss Muslimah USA, a pageant for young Muslim women, the complexity of modesty is on full display.
Last year, on a Thursday in June, long before live events and large gatherings bore the threat of contagion, the ballroom of the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn, Mich., was in full pageant form.
Pink mini cupcakes filled the dessert table. A disco ball hung from the ceiling, spinning subtly as the D.J. set the mood with music. Seats for guests were draped in shiny gold fabric.
Wine however, was swapped for Welch’s sparkling red grape juice. The talent portion of the evening was made up entirely of readings from the Quran. A magician performed what he jokingly called “halal magic.” The musical act performed Muslim hip-hop.
For a century, the beauty pageant has embedded itself in the cultural identity of America. Miss Muslimah USA offers a fresh take on the well-worn event format, one that lies at the intersection of American cultural identity and religious freedom at a time when both seem to be in flux.
The pageant has given Muslim women, particularly those who wear the hijab, the chance to participate in an American rite on their own terms, without having to compromise their faith. (Its motto: “promoting modesty and inner beauty.”) It was created by Maghrib Shahid, a 39-year-old Black Muslim mother and modest clothing designer from Columbus, Ohio.
As a hijabi, a Muslim woman who wears a head scarf, Ms. Shahid felt that she and other women like her bore the brunt of discrimination against Muslims, a diverse population estimated to number more than three million in the United States.
President Trump — a former pageant-world figure himself — has inflamed Islamophobia in the nation, through his rhetoric and by banning migration from several majority-Muslim countries.
“We’re visibly Muslim, it’s us who will be attacked first,” Ms. Shahid said. “I wanted to give Muslim women the opportunity to change misconceptions about themselves.”
Halima Yasin Abdullahi, 23, who was crowned in the first Miss Muslimah pageant in 2017, said that two years on, she still feels its impact.
“I’ve gained a really strong and consistent confidence in myself, and learned to appreciate my flaws,” she said. “This is me. This is how I was born.”
To enter Miss Muslimah USA, contestants must be practicing Muslims aged 17 to 30, a range established after the first pageant, which accepted contestants up to 40 years of age. There’s a $250 registration fee and a screening process. Once they are enrolled, they can prepare to compete in five categories: abayah (a loose, robelike dress), burkini (a swimsuit that covers the whole body), modest special occasion dress (dresses that are too tight could lead to disqualification) and talent, which may be a spoken word poem or a Quran recitation.
Contestants must also answer this question: “If you were crowned Miss Muslimah USA, how would you use that title to change misconceptions about Muslim women in the world?”
The winner holds the Miss Muslimah USA title for a year, signs a contract to abide by certain codes of conduct, is managed by the organization and walks in a show at an annual fashion convention hosted by Perfect for Her, a modest wear brand. Ms. Shahid helps the winner navigate sponsorships and fashion bookings.
The first pageant was advertised to include a $5,000 prize for the winner. Subsequent pageants have not offered monetary rewards, though Ms. Shahid’s hope is to offer scholarships in the future.
Running the pageant on a shoestring budget by herself, Ms. Shahid dipped into her savings to bring Halima Aden, a Somali-American model, to Columbus for the first Miss Muslimah USA. Ms. Aden was the first contestant to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota pageant in 2016, and went on to become the first woman to wear a hijab and burkini in Sports Illustrated, in 2019.
“It’s not about becoming rich or wealthy. It’s about making a true difference, a real impact,” Ms. Shahid said. “I want people to really benefit from this. I want to change your life. I want to change your soul.”
Her passion for pageants began in childhood; she told herself that someday she would enter a competition. “As I got older, I realized, I don’t see anybody like me — who looks like me and the way I dress,” she said. “It became a distant dream.”
Now that she has Miss Muslimah, she said, “I’m living my dream through these women.”
Backstage last July, the contestants strapped on heels, adjusted the gowns they had modified with sleeves and high necklines, and helped one another tuck in their scarves before being called onstage.
Andrea Rahal, 30, whose sister Amanda and cousin Amal were helping her into a silver sequined gown and white hijab, was one of them. Born to Lebanese parents and raised in Dearborn, home to one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country, Ms. Rahal has worn a hijab since she was 8., She now works as a phlebotomist and medical assistant, and is a single mother of two.
Ms. Rahal rallied her community around last year’s pageant. She found 30 sponsors for the event and convinced Ms. Shahid to move the event from Columbus to Dearborn.
“When I found Miss Muslimah, I never thought an opportunity like that would pop up,” Ms. Rahal said. “It was always a dream for me to be part of a pageant, so when something comes your way, always take the risk and take the chance.”
The contestants strutted down the catwalk in their gowns one by one. Karter Zaher, a former member of Deen Squad, a popular Muslim hip-hop group, sang the hit song “Cover Girl” (which includes lines such as “she represents peace and got her own voice, she’s not forced to wear it cos’ she made her own choice” and “she rocks the head scarf like the mother of Jesus”).
Wearing their gowns, the women moved on to recite their speeches, which touched on Islamophobia, feminism, self-care and the desire to be seen as multidimensional people in American society.
“I am a Muslim feminist,” Zeytuna Mohamed, a 22-year-old nursing student from Des Moines, said onstage. “Many people think that those two words are incompatible, but I am here to prove you wrong. I am not oppressed. I am not passive, and I am certainly not caged.”
Umuhani Abdullahi, 20 and representing Kentucky, said in her speech: “This is my home, America. This is the only home that I know right now. I passionately dream of seeing girls like me in fashion books, on billboards, in Coca-Cola advertisements and obviously in movies. Hopefully Netflix.”
Just like several American beauty pageants, Miss Muslimah has had its share of shake-ups while attempting to establish itself as a legitimate organization.
In 2017, Dr. Khadijah Ismael, 42, won the first pageant, in which she ran on a platform of knocking down stereotypes about Muslim women. After winning, she traveled on a speaking tour which she paid for. But disagreements between Dr. Ishmael and the Miss Muslimah organization arose, and a month before her reign was over she was informed that she was disqualified.
Contractual issues caused Rahma Mohamed, who was crowned the winner in 2019, and Miss Muslimah USA to part ways. Ms. Mohamed, a 17-year-old from Wisconsin who is studying mechanical engineering, was a semifinalist in the Miss Wisconsin Teen USA pageant and later went on to represent her state in Miss Teen World America. She was the first Muslim to place in the competition.
Dr. Ismael, a dentist, went on to create Women of Wellness of New Jersey, an organization that produces the Miss Glitz, Glamour, and Brains USA in S.T.E.M pageant, which “showcases the beauty of the mind.” She and Ms. Shahid are now on good terms. “I thank the organization for being the catalyst for me and many other women to do many productive things in the community and beyond,” Dr. Ishmael said.
Ms. Shahid said she has received backlash from fellow Muslims who thought the premise of the pageant defied the very definition of modesty by putting women in the spotlight. She remained undeterred.
“We’re living in the real world. We have to make noise. If we want to change we have to make change,” she said. “I found myself trying to show Muslims it’s OK to come out of your comfort zone, it’s OK to be part of a pageant. I understand that this opportunity was never provided to you, but it’s OK now.”
The pageant itself is adapting, defying traditions it established early on to embrace the complexity of the very community it hopes to uplift. In 2018, as a way to welcome new converts and young women who couldn’t speak Arabic, contestants were given the choice between reciting from the Quran or reading a poem.
This year, non-hijabi Muslims will be allowed to enter and compete alongside hijab-wearing contestants, Two international contestants — from Kazakhstan and Britain — will also be competing.
Ms. Shahid thinks there’s still so much work to do to reach the pageant’s full potential. She pointed to the rise of the Miss USA pageant, which grew out of the Miss America pageant after the winner Yolande Betbeze Fox refused to pose for publicity shots while wearing a swimsuit in 1950.
“It took time for them to build,” Ms. Shahid said. “If you support Miss Muslimah, in the next 10 years we’ll also have that great momentum.”
The Look is a column that examines identity through a visual-first lens. This year, the column is focused on the relationship between American culture and politics in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, produced by Eve Lyons and Tanner Curtis.