Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Porter: This beauty queen has brains and bite

Porter: This beauty queen has brains and bite

By Catherine PorterColumnist
Published On Thu Jan 14 2010

Tahmena Bokhari admits a feminist beauty queen seems an oxymoron, but says it’s an important step in women’s rights. “We really have to challenge ourselves on how women can show the different sides of themselves.” (Jan. 11, 2010)

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Tahmena Bokhari is Mrs. Pakistan 2010. She was crowned in a Mississauga motel in December.

The Canadian Muslim is also a diehard feminist.

Get your head around all that.

"It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it?" she says from the couch in her family's spacious Woodbridge home, dressed conservatively save the hot-red high heels she's wearing. She will tell you that, while she's tall for a Pakistani woman, at five-foot-five, she's short for a beauty queen.

"My definition of liberation for women is when women can really choose what they want to be and how to be it, without social, financial and cultural consequences or backlash," she says.

Bokhari is wearing black pants, a red shirt and a black jacket. Diamonds drip from her ears and pearls dance around her throat. She's pretty, but not supermodel calibre.

If she were a pin-up model, it would be for a feminist calendar.

She's educated, with a master's degree in social work from the University of Toronto. She's toiled in women's shelters. She organized York Region's Take Back the Night march five years ago.

She teaches social work courses at both Seneca and George Brown colleges and is a diversity consultant, sitting on Vaughan's diversity committee.

After the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, she flew by helicopter to Muzaffarabad and spent six weeks helping with the relief efforts, focusing on women's health in the refugee camps. She worked as a translator for foreign doctors. She speaks five languages.

In her blog about the trip, she quoted Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and black feminist poet bell hooks.

She is nothing like the cute, bubbly Miss South Carolina Teen USA who became a symbol of pageant vacuousness and a YouTube sensation three years ago, with her answer to why one-fifth of Americans can't find the USA on a map. (She sputtered on about South Africa and then Iraq. Watch it if you are feeling glum. It's a sure pick-you-up.)

Bokhari could eat you alive in a women's studies class.

"Are beauty pageants a stage where women are objectified and graded according to male standards of beauty?" asks the 31-year-old, nimbly revising my question.

"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."

Dissent is at the heart of both the Miss and Mrs. Pakistan competitions. The Miss came first. Sonia Ahmed started it seven years ago as "shock treatment" against the pervasive model of a "good Pakistani" woman she found when she moved here from Karachi a few years earlier: demure, quiet, submissive.

"In our culture, if a woman laughs loudly, she is considered not a good woman," says Ahmed.

The response, she says, was outrage – from both conservatives and progressives.

"The feminists who would be appalled by this should understand, if we did this in Pakistan, women would be murdered and have their heads cut off. This is about women's rights. We don't want another Aqsa Parvez murder in our community."

To effect real change, she later realized, she had to get to the mothers. Change their image of themselves, and you'll change their entire families, which in cases like Bokhari's, extends to 120 people.

After three years, Ahmed started Mrs. Pakistan. Bokhari is the fourth winner.

There are no catwalks. No talent shows. No bathing suit competition, although Bokhari will have to don a bikini when she competes for Mrs. World and Mrs. Globe titles later this year.

The competition sounds more like Jeopardy! than American Idol. Over a week last December, eight married women from Europe and the U.S. were grilled by Ahmed and four other panellists with questions like, "How should we deal with the India-Pakistan conflict?" and "What is your stance on abortion?"

Ahmed says Bokhari is the strongest candidate to date.

Bokhari wants to use the title to spread the word on both a progressive Pakistan and women's rights. After years of finding herself a rarity at women's marches, she hopes the crown will buy her access to the unconverted: Pakistani-Canadian women who think their only option is marriage and kids.

"That's fine, if that's your goal," says Bokhari. "But they might want to have a career or hobbies. I want to encourage Pakistani women to get out there. I'm all for choices for women."

Bokhari herself never wanted to get married, she says. She had too much planned: school, a trip across Asia to study the many faces of Islam, her passion for photography. But a couple of years ago her grandparents both died. They had raised her for her first six years of life, in Pakistan, before she joined her parents in Canada. Her grandfather's dying wish was that she marry, she says.

Last August, she did: to an accountant she'd known since high school. He's the quiet one who brings in her glass of water during the interview.

Catherine Porter's column runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. She can be reached

Porter: A beauty queen with brains, and bite -

Porter: A beauty queen with brains, and bite -

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mrs. Pakistan World 2010 - Tahmena Bokhari

How do you feel about representing a conservative and Islamic Pakistan in your role as Mrs. Pakistan World 2010?

Tahmena's answer:
As Mrs. Pakistan World 2010 I am here to represent a lighter side of Pakistan. As a social worker, I am using this platform to create the necessary change in the hearts and minds of Pakistanis and the people of the world so that we can create a stronger Pakistan.
In terms of the question of me representing a conservative and Islamic Pakistan, I would ask whose Pakistan and whose Islam are we talking about? My Islam? Your Islam? The Islam of the terrosists? The Islam of those who persecuted Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan? The Islam of those who are among those fighting between the Sunnis and the Shias? The Islam of the men who claim religion as the reason women should not be seen or heard in public? The Islam that is only defined as one with strict rules and regulations enforced by anger and physical violence?
These are not my Islam.

My Islam is loving, compassionate, caring, forgiving, supportive, humane, educated, informed, self-preserving, giving, understanding, patient, positive, creative, open to new ideas and full of inner peace. My Islam is one which has taught me to love myself, love my body, appreciate life and respect my fellow human beings, man, woman, child, white, black or disabled. My Islam is one in which judgements are left to a supreme being who is more knowledgeable than I. My Islam is one in which everyone is given a fair chance to live a quality life of success and happiness. My Islam is one in which women are not forced to sell their bodies or steal food in order to feed their childen. My Islam is one in which individuals look within them to better the world before pointing fingers. My Islam is one in which everyone is included and accepted. My Islam is not shame, hate or fear based. I challenge people to remove any feelings of hate, anger and discrimination that they may have associated with their understandings of Islam.

Speaking of Pakistan, I would argue there are different religions in practice and more importantly, there are those who identify as Christian Pakistanis, Hindu Pakistanis, and Parsi Pakistanis and so on. Speaking of a country with over 170 million people, each person or community will have their own ideas of Islam and what it means to be a Pakistani. I do not claim to represent all of them and nor do I claim to be a symbol of Islam. It was never my goal to represent all Pakistanis or all Muslims.

I would also say that the many of the various icons of Pakistan have not been solely figures of religion or religion-focused. Pakistani icons that come to mind include political figures like Benzir Bhutto and Fatima Jinnah; poets like Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Parveen Shakir; the first woman architect Yasmeen Lari; human rights activist Asma Jahangir; and more recently new female fighter pilots in the Pakistani armed forced. These are the people who have helped make the country what it is yet none of their careers or accomplishments were solely based on their role modeling of Islam nor did they specifically preach Islam. They are known for their talents, professional skills, service to the community and leadership in their particular industry...all of which are required to develop a country.

I also ask why we are so precoocupied with what is Islamic, espcially when it comes to women? I believe we are overly preoccpuied with this question and too focused on picking at the so-called sins of others, especially picking on women. I have worked in Pakistan with so many kinds of people, there are women who have to resort to prostitution because they have no source of income, there are gay men forced to live in the closet, married to women and having affairs with men, there are children and orphans who are abused, deformed and forced into a life of begging on the streets, there are people who are forced to steal because of the economic and social conditions, and there are people who have died of common illnesses because they could not afford or access a doctor or medicine. Yes, all of this is happening in Islamic Pakistan, and is all this Islamic? We somehow forget to ask that question. Yet, when a woman is making progress in any way or coming into the public realm, all of a sudden this question arises about her ‘Islamic-ness’. I think we should instead be asking, “Is this justice?” When we focus on justice we all of a sudden start to see possibilities for change on all of the social problems and can work oursleves to a higher quality of life. Many would argue that that is the true meaning of Islam.

Mrs. Pakistan World 2010 - Tahmena Bokhari