Proud to be modest

Zehra Abukar, Miss Muslimah 2020

Growing up as a Somali refugee in Turkey, Zehra Abukar watched the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants and never imagined walking the runway herself. “Somehow the bikini image was stuck in my head,” she says, adding that, in accordance with her religious beliefs, she is a “cover girl” who exposes only her face, hands, and feet.

Muslim women modeling the Abayati Fashion collection, including Miss Maine Zehra Abukar, Miss Muslimah 2020 in the center. Photo by Aya Zeid.

Once Abukar heard about the Miss Muslimah beauty pageant for Muslim American women, she jumped at the chance to apply to compete in the fourth-annual event in Dearborn, Michigan, the most Muslim city in the United States. Despite being from Maine, a state where less than 1 percent of the population is Muslim, the 23-year-old aspiring fashion designer won the crown.

Contestants were vetted based on video submissions, and Abukar told her story of surviving civil war in Somalia as a girl, learning another language and culture in Istanbul as a teen, and learning a third language and culture as a young woman in Maine. She arrived in Portland at age 17 with her mother Rahma Duale and sister Hafza Abukar. Five years later, in 2018, she became a United States citizen. As an Americorps volunteer, she volunteered 1,200 hours—organizing fashion shows, helping newcomers with applications for asylum and, early in the pandemic, delivering hot meals to isolated senior citizens.

Abukar made it to the top 15 contestants invited to Michigan, where each young woman walked the red carpet in three outfits: an abaya (a robe-like dress), a burkini (a swimsuit that leaves only the head, hands and feet exposed), and a special occasion gown. Abukar designed her ensembles and didn’t shy away from glamour. While a traditional abaya is dark—most often black—she wore one in shades of pink and salmon with a gold metallic weave. She modeled a sporty gray-and-turquoise burkini, the likes of which she has worn to swim at Willard Beach in South Portland. And she shimmered in a royal blue evening gown as she was crowned with the Miss Muslimah 2020 tiara.

Miss Muslimah 2020 Zehra Abukar of Maine in her burkini. “Yes, people stare,” she says, “but I enjoy swimming and that’s what I wear.” Courtesy photo.

“I want to practice Islam, but I want to change the fashion sense,” she says. “When I walk in, I want people to know that I’m a Muslim woman and a fashionista.”

The best part of the Miss Muslimah experience, Abukar says, was the sisterhood.

“Being in Maine, you don’t see that many Muslim people,” she says. “Before I was crowned, I was already a winner because of all the connections that I made.”

The two runners-up, for example, were a Russian American from California who had converted to Islam and an Iraqi American from Michigan.

Abukar says, “We all had the same experiences with being hijab-wearing women on American streets, with people asking questions like, ‘Do you take a shower with your hijab?’” (A curious shopper asked Abukar that question when she was a cashier at Hannaford.)

Abukar wants to be an example that Muslims are just like everyone else—going to work, dressing up, thinking about what to eat next, looking forward to weekends—and that “cover girls” can be stunningly beautiful without sacrificing their beliefs or customs.

“With Miss Muslimah, my idea of what a pageant could be and what beauty is changed,” she says. “‘Beautiful,’ to me, is doing things with passion, doing things out of love.”

Abukar’s love of fashion was nurtured in Maine, where she designed her first dress in 2016 for the Women United Around the World gala in Portland.

Studying fashion marketing at Portland Arts and Technology High School, Abukar took inspiration from World War II era feminist icon Rosie the Riveter and designed a “We Belong Here” t-shirt depicting a woman in a hijab. Shirt sales raised $1,200 for multilingual programs in the Portland Public Schools.

Miss Muslimah 2020 Zehra Abukar of Maine in her evening gown and crown. Courtesy photo.

“It spoke to me when I first saw it, when I studied US history,” Abukar says. “I recreated it and put in a hijab here. Yes, we can do it. Yes, we belong here.”

Abukar studied textiles at Maine College of Art, unveiled her first fashion line in a show at Space Gallery, and participated in several other culturally representative fashion shows in Portland and Lewiston.

“Here, everything started,” Abukar says. “I’m an immigrant woman, I’ve made myself from nothing. I don’t let my past define me. I didn’t have any choices in what happened in my past, it was sort of delivered to me. I’m from a country where there was a civil war, and my father getting killed. We became refugees and had to move to a country where we didn’t speak the language. We had to start all over.”

Now, Abukar is on the verge of starting over yet again—this time of her own choosing. She will be a fashion design student at Savannah College of Art in Georgia this spring.

“Now that I’ve won Miss Muslimah, I can encourage more girls and more women to pursue their dreams,” she says. “A lot of Muslim women, when they first come to this country, are afraid to work outside the home. I want to teach them to be business owners.”

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