Porter: This beauty queen has brains and bite
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 firstname.lastname@example.org