Tahmena Bokhari subject of "Women's Rights"


By Sarah Menkedick

I can't think of a better example of how women don't have to fit into neat little role boxes than Tahmena Bokhari. Bokhari refreshingly sees continuity between being a Muslim, a feminist, a beauty queen, an activist, a scholar, a consultant, a writer, and an advocate for contesting the media's portrayals of Muslims, Islam, and women.

She has worked in women's shelters, provided disaster relief in Pakistan, researched and blogged about Islamic history and identity in Southeast Asia, fought for women's and immigrants rights as a social worker in Toronto's immigrant communities, and most recently, won the Mrs. Pakistan World 2010 pageant.

The latter usually sends the media for a loop. In the mindset in which we currently pin women down neatly like butterflies ("mother," "sex symbol," "activist," "scholar"), it's exceedingly difficult to imagine all of these supposedly disparate roles coming together. But Bokhari effortlessly embodies them -- she doesn't feel the need to apologize for being in a beauty pageant to appease a more stereotypical tough, rough "feminist" image or to soften her activism to appear more "feminine."

Instead, she calls the media out on the categorization game, saying in the Toronto Star: "We really have to challenge ourselves on how women can show the different sides of themselves -– beauty, intelligence, sexuality, culture, motherhood. Women are always on the tightrope. You can't be too thin, too fat, too old, too provocative ... Men don't have to go through this. It's a sign we have a lot more to do."

Bokhari is using her role as Mrs. Pakistan to fight for issues she's always been passionate about, particularly the way in which Pakistan and Muslim women are depicted in the media, and the singular, traditional view of women as only homemakers, only beauty queens, only mothers. She's assumed her new role of pageant winner as if it were just another natural addition to her layered identity -- and, in a world free of such limiting definitions of women, it would be.

Even the pageant Bokhari won defies the standard "beauty pageant" stereotype. Pakistani Sonia Ahmed started the pageant to challenge traditional Pakistani notions of the "good woman" who consistently demurs to men. Instead of staging bikini contests, the pageant asks contestants to answer questions about the India-Pakistan conflict and explain their stances on abortion. Winners are chosen for a much more holistic notion of beauty that focuses less on the body and more on the whole woman, brain and all.

What a concept: beauty doesn't have to exclude intelligence, feminism doesn't have to exclude Islam, passionate work and activism don't have to trump family life, sexuality, and cultural ties. Women can embody all of these things without having to slap any particular label on their foreheads. Liberation, indeed.

Sarah Menkedick is a freelance writer currently based in Oaxaca, Mexico. She has spent the last five years teaching, writing and traveling on five continents. She regularly writes about women's rights.

No comments:

Post a Comment