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Islamic pageant

27 March 2015


"I HADN'T realised how British I am." This statement, no doubt music to the ears of Nigel Farage, came from a source unlikely to cause him unalloyed delight: the UK entry to the World Muslimah contest, Dina Torkia.

Muslim Miss World (BBC3, Thursday of last week) was the contestant's video diary, and raised more serious questions than I expected. Mrs Torkia sees her work as helping, with her online clothes business, in the struggle faced by young female Muslims in Britain: namely, how they can remain true to their faith and its teachings, while dressing attractively and enjoying, modestly, their youth and beauty.

Entering the competition would, she thought, help her in this task. Immediately, she was faced by confrontations within Islam: more conservative Muslims in the UK were outraged that she should do such a thing, and posted offensive messages on her website.

She assumed that she would find Indonesia, the location of the competition and home to the world's largest Muslim population, far more circumscribed - but found instead that she was the one shocked by women singing in public; and by being expected to stay in a house whose residents included a man (she checked with her husband, and he forbade it). So she learned that the proper modesty required of good Muslims is capable of wide cultural variation, and that she was not always on the liberal side of the line.

Her Britishness revealed itself in shock at the lack of transparency in the way the contest was organised; by what she saw as exploitation of children (the final judgement was made by 50 supposedly orphan children - most of whom were asleep by the time their big moment came); and by how unwilling she was to accept all of this meekly, unlike the native competitors.

It was considered essential to judge the girls' social concern and faith - giving some substance, I suppose, to the vacuous hope for "world peace" traditionally voiced by beauty queens. Reading from the Qur'an was one section of the competition; and I don't imagine that, for example, Miss World contestants are expected to rise daily at 3 a.m. for prayers. Mrs Torkia didn't win, but on this showing she is feisty and reflective, representing a key part in that constant redefinition of Britishness which involves us all.

The eve of Passion Sunday found one passion play on TV: in BBC4's Inspector Montalbano. I do not much like this crime series, but many friends do; so I felt I should give it a second chance. The plot last Saturday was as crime-thriller-conventional as I remembered; but there were moments of serious deliberation and moral complexity to add substance to the glorious Sicilian locations.

The clownish constable Catarella (whose imbecility is one of the reasons I find the show unappealing) portrayed Judas in the local drama society - and did it well. A dismembered body had been found in a place called the Potters' Field, and had been cut up into 30 pieces - geddit? So religion found its way into the script, which was shot through with that other staple of the genre: passion of a somewhat different, Mediterranean, sultry aspect.

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