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She's Hot and Hezbollah: When Women Are Wielded as Ideological Weapons

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Some of my fellow Americans are sure that Miss USA 2010, Lebanese-American Rima Fakih, is a Hezbollah plant, an effect of the liberal treachery that's handing America over to Islam. Some Muslims are angry that Fakih, who showed herself off in a barely-there bikini, is identified with their religion and getting positive press for it. She might be a means by which certain types of Islam, liberal in behavior, are celebrated, while others are pushed out of bounds. Who gets to decide which Islam is OK?

The sillier reactions have rightly -- and hilariously -- been put down by playwright Wajahat Ali, writing for Salon. But what do we make of the apprehension with which Muslims approach Fakih, unsure whether they should ignore, cheer, or shrug at her? Because it's hard enough being a conservative Muslim woman in the West. Especially when things like the French burqa ban happen.

Then along comes a pretty pageant winner, letting the world know that Muslims are "normal" -- and we are -- but her normal is, in part, bikinis, unreal beauty exploited to capitalist benefit, and the negative pressure it smacks down on women worldwide. Janan Delgado, writing for AltMuslima, gets the consequent stresses. My sympathies rush to reach my co-religionist sisters struggling to prove that piety isn't reactionary, that covering your head doesn't mean covering your mind.

Because pressures to prove we're Western come from two sides, right and left. Many on the rightest fringe just want us behind fences, but some on the leftest edges cannot fathom how or why religion survives in the modern world. (They might limit fences to religions, which is fine except that religions only exist in -- and on -- people.) How do we prove our Westernness? And why do we have to? Here I am, with a better command of English than most of the people who push English-only laws.

So Fakih could, with her descriptions of swimsuit normality, hurt those women who cover and contribute to and care for the world around them. They're already made to feel like their sartorial philosophy pushes them outside the fringes of civilization, anti-burqa laws bringing new meaning to "pro-choice." But then I think of all the women in countries that tell them what (not) to wear (Belgium, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc.), punished if they stray, and I'm confused all over again.

While I'm not so naive as to imagine that there is a pure, unadulterated individuality, we sometimes underestimate the great harm in being forced or even pushed to conform. Sometimes it's your family; sometimes it's advertising. (Are those equal forces? Capitalism, Marx would say, could kick traditional patriarchy's behind. In part by unveiling and selling it and making us feel socially acceptable only if we have it and flaunt it.) Wear "modest" clothes, dress how the stereotyped Muslim does, and you risk alienation, with the eyes of the world damning and excluding. Do the opposite, and you win the world's applause. (It works the same way, but backwards, in many majority Muslim lands.)

Very few issues can be easily condensed into right or wrong, judged by more clothes or less. Fakih will doubtless be wielded as a weapon, more often than not to tell women what they're wearing is wrong. For far too long, women -- or, rather, women reduced to their bodies -- have been the fields on which ideas, identities, and now corporations do battle. It's sadly ironic that feminine beauty incites so much ugliness.

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