Bashed and bullied, Muslim beauty earns long-sought crown
Being part of the Muslim community and wearing a swimsuit in a beauty pageant presented its own set of challenges for Sharifa Areef Mohammad Omar Akeel.
The 21-year-old Mutya ng Pilipinas 2018 bagged the Miss Asia Pacific International crown early this month, giving the country its first win in the pageant since 1993.
Her answer during the final question-and-answer portion of the international pageant must have resonated with the judges, just as it had personally affected her, according to the Sultan Kudarat native.
The top five finalists — Misses Venezuela, Mongolia, Brazil, Philippines and Costa Rica — were asked: “What do you think is the biggest issue of diversity that the world is facing today, and how do you think you can play a part to resolve it?”
“Cyberbullying,” Akeel responded. “We have to accept the fact that all of us are born with strengths and weaknesses. And with that, we have our own imperfections. Let us appreciate one’s uniqueness and relevance.”
“I like linking my answers to my own experiences,” Akeel explained in an interview with the Inquirer last week.
She is no stranger to cyberbullying, she said, recalling how she experienced a lot of bashing especially on her Facebook page since she started joining beauty pageants at the age of 19.
“The bashing hurts, especially because it came from my brothers and sisters in the Muslim community,” Akeel said.
These critics did not know that joining beauty contests was something she did, not for herself, “but for the whole country.” It was a way to give the Muslim community a better representation, she added.
“They were using my religion to attack me, especially when I wore a swimsuit. All I wanted (to do) was erase the stigma that we, Muslims, have (been tarred with) when portrayed in the media. Not all of us are killers, bad persons and terrorists. I am proud to say that we are compassionate and kindhearted,” Akeel said.
In the core of Islamic principles, it is prohibited for women to show too much skin. It is prescribed that they cover up by wearing the “hijab” (head covering) as a sign of modesty and protection.
Lately, however, beauty pageants have evolved to become more inclusive by accepting contestants who come from different races or belief systems and allowing them to compete wearing what they’re more comfortable in.
In this year’s Miss New Zealand-Universe pageant, one of the finalists was 20-year-old Malaysian Muslim Nurul Shamsul, who wore a hijab.
Other beauty contests have ditched the swimsuit category, including the Miss America pageant.
Meanwhile, Muslim countries in the Middle East, among them Iraq, were represented in last year’s Miss Universe competition.
Having studied Islam and Arabic when she was younger, Akeel is familiar with religious and cultural practices associated with Islam.
“I personally see the swimsuit as a piece of art. Nothing wrong with that. Allah (God) knows what is inside my heart,” said this elementary education graduate of Notre Dame of Salaman College in Lebak, Sultan Kudarat.
Being a beauty queen had always been her childhood dream, said Akeel, who has joined eight beauty contests so far.
Still, she admitted, she asks forgiveness every single day, and prays that her intentions would remain pure, and that her bashers would understand her intentions.
“Please just let me do this. Let me promote my advocacy because I want to live with a purpose,” Akeel said.
No permanent address
Before winning the Miss Asia Pacific International title, life had not exactly been easy for Akeel. “I came from a very poor family,” she said.
Akeel’s parents are both Muslims. Her father, who passed away three years ago, was half Qatari and half Iranian. Her mother was Maguindanaon and once worked overseas.
“Back then in Qatar, my mother was the personal maid of (the man who would become) my father. He fell in love with her and followed her to the Philippines. They got married in Cotabato City,” she said.
But seven days after the wedding, Akeel’s father had to go back to Qatar and was not around when Sharifa was born.
“He eventually divorced my mother, who decided to work abroad again to support me. She left me with my grandmother in Parang, Maguindanao. My grandma and I had to move around; we didn’t have a permanent address. We finally settled in Lebak, Sultan Kudarat,” she said.
Akeel had never seen her father in person and had communicated with him only through phone calls.
“He tried to support me, too, but then he stopped. I heard he got sick,” she said.
Despite the tough times and protests from some relatives in Sultan Kudarat who disapproved of her joining beauty contests, Akeel said the support of the provincial government and its officials saw her through.
“I thank God that I am here right now. This is my destiny. Even though we are from the Muslim community, we should realize we have the same rights as other people. We should be appreciated. Since we all live in one country, let’s not just focus on religion. We can make a difference. I want others to do the same,” she said.
That’s not to say that she’s encouraging all Muslim women to follow everything she did, especially joining beauty pageants or showing more skin, Akeel said. Everything she did was her personal choice and she’s not one to change Islam’s principles, she said.
“I cannot detach myself from my identity, so wherever I go, Islam will always be within me,” Akeel said.
She added: “I just want my fellow Muslims to also find their own ways of promoting peace and goodwill. No religion teaches us bad things. You are free to find ways to become a good person.”
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