How Miss Muslimah USA 2020 winner Zehra Abukar hopes to empower her Muslim 'sisters': 'If I can do it, you can do it'

A celebration of modestwear fashion and modern-day feminism, the pageant seeks to give Muslim women a platform to be inspired and inspiring

Winner of the fourth Miss Muslimah pageant USA, Zehra Abukar. Courtesy Miss Muslimah USA
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The festive beats of Don Omar's hit Latin American track Danza Kuduro fades, and the DJ gets a drum roll going as guests eagerly wait to hear the evening's big announcement. "It is my honour to announce the next queen of the Miss Muslimah pageant USA. The winner of the fourth Miss Muslimah USA, is … Zehra Abukar!"

A hijab-wearing Somali refugee, Abukar, 23, lived in Turkey for seven years before moving to the US in 2014. Last Thursday, she represented her state of Maine in the fourth annual Miss Muslimah USA pageant, which is the brainchild of modest clothing designer Maghrib Shahid, a black Muslim from Ohio.

Celebrating beauty and modesty

Far from your typical beauty contest, Miss Muslimah USA celebrates women of the Islamic faith sans the skin-­baring propensity typical of pageantry culture.

This year, the pageant welcomed 15 contestants, between the ages of 17 and 30, and culminated in a competition for the crown at a banquet-style dinner where each contestant walked down a red carpet in an abaya, a burkini and a special occasion dress, in addition to a talent show. The latter included recitations from the Quran, spoken-word poetry and, in Abukar’s case, a traditional Somali dance.

Modest fashion has been gaining momentum globally, with hijab-wearing Muslim models such as Halima Aden, Ikram Abdi Omar and Mariah Idrissi starring as the diverse faces of the movement. However, some conservative critics are against the idea of Muslim women appearing on public platforms such as runways, magazines and social media, holding patriarchal beliefs that they should stay out of the spotlight. Initiatives such as Miss Muslimah USA, on the other hand, encourage Muslim women in the US to flaunt their faith with pride, and promote the idea that modesty and modernity are by no means mutually exclusive.   

A fashionable frame of mind 

“When it comes to Muslim women, a lot of us have this idea of oversized clothes and covering from head to toe. I love to dress up and look good. I want people to identify me as a Muslim, so I love wearing clothes that represent my people in the best way possible,” Abukar tells The National.   

An aspiring fashion designer, Abukar sews most of her clothes herself, and her favourite silhouette to experiment with is that of the abaya. “When you hear the word abaya, the first thing that comes to your mind is a black garment. I love black, it’s my favourite colour. But when it comes to abayas, I love wearing bright colours [instead of] the typical black ones,” she says.

Accordingly, for the abaya segment of Miss Muslimah USA, Abukar made herself a salmon pink kimono-style abaya with a metallic gold weave, large pockets and a gold rope belt. For the swimwear segment, she wore a grey burkini decorated with a stripe of teal, from online fast-­fashion retailer SheIn. For her final outfit change, Abukar wore a sparkling navy blue gown. “It was sleeveless when I bought it. I fixed it and added the sleeves myself,” she says.

Abukar wore a blue gown as her special occasion outfit 

Abukar was bestowed with a majestic bouquet of red roses upon being crowned at the end of the evening. With the flowers juxtaposed against her navy gown, she was a vision in red, white and blue, coincidentally and somewhat ironically the colours of the American flag. Taking place in a country that has had its share of racist and Islamophobic incidents, the Miss Muslimah USA pageant can be seen as a symbol of diversity, inclusivity, feminism and religious tolerance. It’s also an event for America’s multicultural Muslim community to come together as one and celebrate their women.  

“I felt like a winner just by coming here,” says Abukar. “I live in a city where I don’t experience all this, I don’t see a lot of sisters, and that was overwhelming, that totality and that sisterhood was beyond beautiful.”

Community calling

Even as events across the globe are getting cancelled or digitalised due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Miss Muslimah USA went on as planned in downtown Detroit in the state of Michigan, where Muslims make up almost 3 per cent of the population.

“I have a mission, to empower and uplift Muslim women while promoting modesty and inner beauty,” says Shahid, the pageant’s founder. “If we give up and stop, I know many others will give up. We can’t take any days off because it is imperative to keep spreading our message. The Miss Muslimah USA pageant inspires women to raise their heads and push through, knowing that they have a platform to change misconceptions for a better future for our youth.”

Maghrib Shahid, founder of Miss Muslimah USA

Some might say the representation of Muslim women in the US has improved over the past decade, with women such as Aden and congresswoman Ilhan Omar shattering glass ceilings in the fields of fashion and politics. But Abukar believes the country still has a long way to go. “Yes, we’re doing better than a few years ago, but we are not there yet. We need to work harder. We need to focus on our similarities, not on our differences,” she says.

The pageant winner also emphasises the plurality of the community and says not every Muslim woman wishes to lead her life according to societal norms dictated by culture.

"Islam is the most beautiful religion. If you go back to when the Prophet Mohammed was alive, there were female entrepreneurs and businesswomen, but people today are mixing up the religion of Islam with their cultures. Nowhere in the Quran does it say that women should just stay home, cook, clean and give birth to kids. It's a beautiful thing to do, it's many women's dream, but not everyone fits into that box," she says.

Inspiration in many forms

Abukar’s role model is Edna Adan Ismail, a victim of female genital mutilation as a child in Somaliland who studied to become a nurse and midwife to help save other young women from the same fate. Ismail was reportedly the first Somali girl to study in the UK, the first Somali girl to drive, and Somaliland’s first registered female nurse and midwife.

“I want Muslim women to have a voice, a choice and a career that they love,” Abukar had said in an audition video, explaining that if she were to win the Miss Muslimah USA title, she would use her position to help create a non-profit organisation aiding and advising Muslim women who seek to learn English and start their own businesses.

She has a string of leadership experience, awards and scholarships to her name, and recently completed her undergraduate degree in business administration. "I've been a community leader, and now that I've won this title, I can inspire more people," she says. "I can say to my sisters: 'If I can do it, you can do it. If someone like me can do it, you've got this. A black, Muslim woman did it, and you can do it, too.'"