When it comes to beauty pageants, Muslim women face scrutiny when they choose to participate in what is viewed as a superficial activity to engage in. In 2015 the International beauty pageant "World Muslimah" was documented by BBC3 and amassed positive attention and criticism.
In 2016, Hayaati Njuki’s experience was no different when she entered the Miss Uganda UK beauty pageant. She speaks with Halimat Shode of TBMT-UK about her journey, what it takes to be a competitor and how it has changed her world.
Asalamu Alaikum sister, thanks so much for speaking with us! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Wa alaikom salam sister, my name is Hayaati Njuki, I’m 21 and from Uganda. I’m currently studying a law degree, whilst being an aspiring hijabi model.
I was born and raised in North London, Tottenham to be precise. I feel as though my upbringing has curved my most prominent passions today, amongst them being hijab fashion. I’m a convert to Islam, and during my pre-Islamic days I was accustomed to the gang life that surrounded my area. However, after a few traumatic incidents of gun and knife crime that affected some people that I knew of, I decided to withdraw myself from that lifestyle and commit to a religion. In doing so, I also gave up my weaves, mini-skirts and tight clothing in order to start wearing the hijab.
What were your motivations for entering the Miss Uganda UK beauty pageant?
I was motivated to do Miss Uganda UK because I knew that my message ‘We hijabi’s are beautiful within our own right’, would be powerful.
Although there were sceptical views to this, I didn’t let them shake me because I know so many girls like myself, who had the complete opposite upbringing to those that were raised wearing the hijab, But want to embark on that journey and have not found the courage within themselves yet to take that step. I believed that my participation could reach out to them, on that deeper level.
I also knew the positive impact my message would have on the young girls who struggle with wearing their hijabs due to the challenges of feeling left out of society’s normal standards of beauty, in tough environments such as school, college or university.
So my reasons were what gave me solidarity when all the negative opinions were drowning me in that I was bringing shame to the hijab, that I was participating for men to judge me and that a Muslim woman should not be in a beauty pageant. Touching on that point, a few days leading up to the pageant, I was sent an article on Halima Aden, who did a beauty pageant in hijab in America and that actually moved me. After I did the pageant, her and I got into contact through Instagram and commended each other on our participations. I also got to meet Mariah Idrissi, H&Ms first hijabi model, and she was supportive about my participation too.
I have had so many females Muslim and non-Muslim commend me on my participation. Some have even told me that it’s inspired and empowered them in ways that I envisaged. So I have no regrets at all.
What were people’s reaction to seeing you, a hijab-wearing Muslim women, enter a beauty pageant?
Miss Uganda UK has a part of the competition called ‘peoples queen’. This is where the public have a chance to vote on who they want to be the people’s queen and it’s promoted through social media. This is where I noticed a wide range of support for my participation and some awkward views.
I work for a youth Magazine and Media Company, called Exposure, and my manager published a press release about my upcoming involvement in the pageant which got promoted by ‘The Young Empire’ which is a media/news company that promotes the work of young black talent in business, politics, entertainment, sport and fashion worldwide.
On their post of me on Instagram, I got 2,500 likes which boosted my votes on the people’s queen poll and pushed me to fourth place. What was more remarkable were the comments and how many people were in support of it. I browsed the comments to see if the negative ones outweighed the positive (as people are really blunt on social media) but it was vice versa. The only negative comments that were on there literally made me laugh. One girl said “but what is she going to do when it comes to the bikini part, Jesus Christ!?” And then someone replied she’ll wear a birkini and someone else replied well Jesus is not going to be a part of the judges.
So externally people were not too sceptical as I expected. However, internally there was some growing tension between some of my relatives, which was drowned out by the support of others.
There was also criticism from my Muslim community, but the extent to which I would not know as I wasn’t too concerned. I only kept an open ear to the good views.
Beauty pageants are assumed to only focus on the physical appearance, was there more to the competition than just what you wore?
Yes, there was more to the pageant than physical appearance. People think a pageant is a fashion show where you just walk up and down a run way and pose. Lol. The pageant was largely comprised of our speeches and how well we represented our ideas.
For example, the first aspect that we were judged on was our creative wear. This is where we had to create an outfit that would be exemplary to our speech. Hence, I came out in a fuchsia pink scarf and abaya, black graduation cap and gown and spoke about Muslim women breaking stereotypes of being child bearing housewives. I extoled that we are pioneers of higher education and some of us do this whilst having a family, and some before. But we have broken the mould that has been built around us which is that we supposedly run off into marriages, abandon education and sit around on benefits.
To be fair, the swim wear aspect did entail the girls strutting their stuff – but I had no part in that. Right after they finished, I came out to do my spoken word piece on paving a way and staying true to who you are.
Even when it came to our evening-wear we were asked to provide a lengthy answer to particular questions. We knew beforehand that our gowns will earn us, but it was emphasised that how well we provided our answers would be the determining factor of our overall success.
As a beauty pageant contestant, are there qualities that you believe are needed to be successful in the competition?
Well I won ‘Miss outstanding 2016’, and amongst the qualities that I feel you need to be successful in the competition is to first and foremost, be able to have a compelling stage presence and to match that with the delivery of your speeches. Another important quality which I and all the contestants emulated was remembering that even though it was a competition, the organisers, mentors and the girls we were competing with, were part of our team. Being a team player during rehearsals and also backstage on the day of the pageant is vital. “Don’t trample over anyone in order to get your sash.” People always hear how horrific pageants are because the girls are so mean to one and another, but I didn’t experience that at all or give that energy out too. So again, it’s very important to be a team player.
Do you believe that entering the beauty pageant has been an experience that has changed you for the better?
Yes I do believe entering the competition has been an experience that has changed me for the better. For starters, it’s helped me develop thicker skin. I can’t please everyone and that’s okay. It’s an experience that’s taught me to be bold enough to turn my dreams into a reality and to never limit myself because of other people’s opinions. On the other hand, it’s been extremely rewarding to have so many females Muslims and non- Muslims tell me that they admire what I did and that my fearless drive has inspired them in one way or another.
Lastly, it has also opened up so many opportunities for me – which are going to come to light at the right time! So I’m just so happy that I took such a great leap of faith!
Where can we connect with you on social media for updates on your future work and projects?
You can connect with me on my Instagram page in order to see my latest work and projects: HayaatiTheHijabi and also on snapchat: HayatiTheHijabi.