Four young Malaysian women got more attention than they bargained for when they were barred from participating in a high-profile beauty pageant last month, due to their religion.
Miss Malaysia World pageant organiser Anna Lim disqualified the four Muslim finalists after Federal Territories Mufti Wan Zahidi Wan Teh commented in an online post that participation in such contests was illegal and against Muslim law.
"Out of respect for the religion, we had to follow the rules and disqualify the four girls," Lim told The Star Online.
The disqualified contestants – who initially expressed disappointment at having to quit the contest – rushed to apologise after top Islamic officials said they could be prosecuted for questioning the fatwa and insulting Islam.
They had been made to understand Muslim girls could participate, one said, since the international Miss World competition is being held in Muslim-majority Indonesia in September, with contestants donning sarongs instead of swimwear out of respect for the host nation.
"This is not about the rule of no bikinis. The fatwa clearly states that Muslim women cannot join beauty pageants," Malaysian Insider quoted Jamil Khir Baharom, minister in the Prime Minister's Department, as saying.
Muslim women are better off taking part in competitions that emphasise beauty and brains, added his deputy, Mashitah Ibrahim. "Intellectual competitions are more beneficial to beautiful women, as well as religiously appropriate," she told Bernama.
Brave, or brash?
Historically, Muslim women are no strangers to Malaysian beauty pageants. Several went on to represent Malaysia in international contests. But few have participated since 1996, when a fatwa declared the participation of Muslim women in beauty contests as haram and sinful.
Radio deejay Yasmin Yussuf, who represented the country in Acapulco, Mexico as Miss Malaysia World 1978, called the four Muslim Miss World contestants – Sara Amelia Muhammad Bernard, Wafa Johanna De Korte, Miera Sheikh and Kathrina Ridzuan – "brave".
She advised them to pay heed to the fatwa, while expressing regret for the impact it has had on the contest.
"I understand the reason for the fatwa, but back in my day, we really lived with the 1Malaysia concept. Not once did any of us consider race an issue. The day Malays could not represent Malaysia was the end of Miss Malaysia because you don't have representation from more than half the population of the country," Yasmin told the Malay Mail.
A beauty queen title is not just a mark of prestige; it is also a stepping stone to fame and wealth. Actress, model and film producer Fazira Wan Chek, popularly known as Erra Fazira, was Miss Malaysia World in 1992. She landed the lead role in her first film after returning from representing Malaysia in the Miss World pageant.
The prizes are lucrative. Carey Ng, the reigning Miss Malaysia Universe 2013, walked away with RM 200,000 ($62,200) worth of products and services, including a cash prize of RM 48,000 ($15,000). She received an undisclosed monthly salary from the Miss Universe Malaysia organisation and a full scholarship from Limkokwing University of Creative Technology.
Models and gymnasts?
As the flap unfolded, Sisters In Islam (SIS), an Islamic group that advocates equal rights for women, expressed concern over the edict's reach: would it also apply to Muslim women in fashion shows and sports?
Two female gymnasts in the elite national squad are Muslims, as are some of Malaysia's top models.
In response, the Department of Islamic Development Director General Othman Mustapha asked SIS to stop "provocations and speculations" over the beauty pageant ban. Gender-based discrimination is non-existent, he said, if the texts of Islam are fully understood.
"In dealing with Islamic religious law, all parties, particularly SIS, should remember they are not to be indiscriminately debated by unqualified people, as it can create chaos and misunderstanding, thus tarnishing the religion and reputation of Muslims at large," he said.