Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

We should no longer be willing to blindly obey rulings and pronouncements made in the name of our religion especially when they are arrogant, unjust or cruel. The ulama do not have the divine mandate or right to be the sole authority to speak on matters which affect our religion or its interpretations. We, as the ummah or congregation of the faith, should all be part of that conversation and not remain silent. It is our religion too.

I remember the exact moment that I became concerned and interested in women’s issues and their link between human rights and religion.

It was back in June 1997. The front page of a number of newspapers that month had showcased the results of a raid conducted by the Selangor Religious Department — the picture of three girls being manhandled and marched out by a group of grim-faced men and women.

Looking at pictures taken during the raid and the way they were treated, one could be excused for thinking that these girls clothed in evening gowns, satin sashes and clutching trophies in their hands were criminals of the worst variety. Their offence? Participating in a beauty pageant.

It was later revealed that the religious officers had watched the Miss Malaysia Petite finals from start to finish while lurking in the shadows and among the audience of the packed hotel ballroom.

At the conclusion of the awards ceremony, they proceeded with the arrests on stage and in front of television cameras, the media and a disbelieving audience. The charges? Under section 31 of the Syariah Crimes Enactment Selangor 1995 which stipulates that Muslim women are not allowed to take part in a beauty contest, and under section 2 of the same enactment for being indecently dressed.

After spending the night in the Subang Jaya police lockup, the three part-time models pled guilty in the syariah court and paid the fine.

History was made that night; this was believed to be the first time that individuals had been arrested in Selangor for participating in a beauty competition. It also set the tone for all future beauty pageants in Malaysia.

Organisers would from then on actively exclude Malay-Muslims girls from such competitions to avoid a repeat of what happened to the Miss Malaysia Petite finals. After all, it’s bad for business to have the morality stormtroopers barge uninvited and arrest the participants.

Future Yasmin Yusofs (Miss Universe Malaysia 1978) and Erra Faziras (Miss World Malaysia 1992) have since then been deterred from participating in such competitions. That is until the recent Miss Malaysia World 2013 pageant.

The 1997 incident to me was a clear demonstration of what happens when oppressive practices and thinking were allowed to grab hold and dictate our actions. Former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had in fact, in the 1997 case, declared that the raid was “not the Islamic way.”

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