Bikini Revolution

UH student Mariyah Moten put on a two-piece and became (in)famous in Pakistan

Gone are the days when I used to be a proud Pakistani.

The only difference between her and any other high-flying socialite in Lahore or Karachi is the fact that they do everything behind closed doors and in private parties.

After the University of Houston's Daily Cougar ran a piece on Moten, the paper published this letter to the editor:

Between pageants in China, the contestants had time to soak in a little culture.
Photo Courtesy Mariyah Moten
Between pageants in China, the contestants had time to soak in a little culture.
Moten vied with 46 other contestants for Miss Bikini Universe.
Photo Courtesy Mariyah Moten
Moten vied with 46 other contestants for Miss Bikini Universe.

"Pakistani women are modest. They don't dress in bikinis, but that does not mean they are suppressed or not modern. They excel in school, work in banks and own businesses...I hope to speak with Moten one day and find out what she finds liberating about a bikini. Even the Statue of Liberty is fully clothed, and for a reason."

Moten was born in Karachi and moved with her family to Dallas when she was five. Shortly after the family moved to Houston -- about six years ago -- she started modeling.

She says her parents supported her new interest, but stressed education over everything for herself and her two younger sisters. And modeling at fashion shows or charity events was one thing; at home in Sugar Land, Moten and her sisters didn't even wear shorts. And there were definitely no two-piece swimsuits. She went to Sunday school, and her mother sat down with the girls every night to pray.

She enrolled in the hotel and restaurant management program at UH, but when she discovered a Toronto-based pageant company called Miss Canada Pakistan, she decided to give it a shot. One thing she liked about the fledgling company was its mission, which founder Sonia Ahmed says is to allow Pakistani women to reveal the beauty blanketed in oppression.

She first competed in the Miss Tourism International pageant -- a few months before Miss Bikini -- where she was crowned Miss Charity. But she knew Miss Bikini was going to be the big one. While some other Muslim countries had been represented in the pageant before, Moten would be the first from Pakistan. She had grown up watching beauty pageants, always wondering why her native country was never represented. Now she would have an opportunity to do something about that.

"I definitely expected something to come out of it," she says, "because I know obviously how this works, right -- but at the same time, for it to be this big? No."

After all, she says, Pakistan has become more moderate, and while there are certain social restrictions for women, Moten says most Pakistani women who cover themselves do so of their own free will.

As Miss Canada Pakistan founder Sonia Ahmed says, "They have opened up the women' s rights, and women are now free to do what they want and dress how they want, and represent Pakistan in whichever way they feel they want to represent Pakistan. It's becoming more secular."

After the firestorm over Moten, Ahmed says, she's entered contestants in four pageants without a peep from Pakistani officials. She says it's part of a cultural shift that, at times, can be confusing.

"The majority right now is a modern and liberal government," she says. "The people are now confused...thinking, 'OK, we were once upon a time very Islamic, now we've got to be modern. So if we're going to tell everyone that we're Islamic, are we going to be the bad people?'"

The confusion abounds: While some reports claimed that Senior Culture Ministry official Ahmed Chaudhry was the one publicly chastising Moten, a spokesman at the Pakistani embassy in Washington D.C. couldn't even confirm there was such an individual. And when the Houston Press e-mailed the Ministry of Culture, the reply was terse: "The Ministry have not any stuff about Mariyah Moten and the stated person Abdul Hafeez Chaudhry has been transferred. So find other contacts."

Well, we now knew that Chaudhry was not a figment of anyone's imagination. But a follow-up attempt to verify whether he said Moten shamed Pakistan yielded only this from the Ministry of Culture: "If he said this, it's 100 percent right, without any doubt. Islam respects a woman in all ages." (It was difficult to gauge what effect, if any, Moten had on Houston's Pakistani community. A representative of the Pakistan Association of Greater Houston said he'd never heard of her and therefore couldn't comment; the editor of the Pakistan Chronicle did not return several messages left for her.)

If the hard-line National Assembly minority thought they could shame Moten into a parka and sweatpants, their outrage had the exact opposite affect.

In 1998, 21-year-old Pakistani-born, Bronx-raised Saroosh Gull launched as a news, entertainment and fashion site for South Asians living abroad ("desis").

"It caught on fire, because nothing else like it existed," Gull says from New York. Keeping his target audience of second- and third-generation desis in mind, Gull recently produced the Sexy South Asian Girls of 2007 calendar. But, he says, it's not just about T&A; it's about breaking stereotypes. Culturally and commercially, putting Moten on the cover was a no-brainer.

"We're using this project to basically shed some light on moderate Muslims," says Gull, adding that showcasing your beauty shouldn't mean you're a bad Muslim. And he wants to showcase it in a big way, with launch parties scheduled at clubs in Dallas, New York, Boston and San Francisco, among other cities. The calendar was sponsored in part by an Indian beer producer and Bibi, a bridal and fashion magazine. In a press release for the calendar, Bibi editor and publisher Ayesha Hakki said, "We think this calendar is a great way to showcase strong and sexy South Asian women. It's an idea whose time has come and we are very proud to be a part of it. Throughout the entire process, we wanted the photos to be sexy and tasteful and I think the end result is a testament to the inherent beauty of South Asian women."

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