Message to middle England: 'We don't all wear burqas'

Hammasa Kohistani entered the Miss England beauty pageant on a whim and ended up wearing the crown. And as the first Muslim winner, she has become a political figure fighting prejudice and stereotyping, she tells Arifa Akbar
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Just under a year ago, Hammasa Kohistani would have blended in with the throng of ethnically diverse students filing into a West London college on their first day of term. But her existence as an ordinary teenager ended abruptly last September when she entered the Miss England beauty pageant to try her luck.

She won the title, and became the first Muslim Miss England in the history of the contest.

Then aged 18, Ms Kohistani, the daughter of Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban, had no idea just how much the beauty crown would change her life, not least because it came just two months after the Tube bomb atrocities of 7 July. The timing meant her role was politicised from the start, and she found herself unwittingly placed in an ambassadorial role for modern Islam.

That was never more evident than yesterday, when Ms Kohistani criticised Tony Blair for stereotyping the Islamic community in the wake of the London bombings. Her strong views and willingness to voice them have highlighted the tensions inherent in being both a Western beauty queen and a Muslim. While liberal Muslims from across the world hailed her as their mascot, her modelling career was met by frostiness in orthodox Islamic quarters.

Speaking yesterday as she resumed her A-Level studies at Uxbridge College, Ms Kohistani recalled: "The day after I won the pageant, I got a phonecall at about six in the morning. It was from an Afghan man living in Pakistan and he congratulated me and said my role would bring Afghan women a bit more respect. He had just found my number and he rung me. So many fans call me from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Many have said they see me as giving Muslims a voice. I received a card that some women in Afghanistan had made me which had a large pair of eyes and my image in the middle of the iris, saying I was 'the eyes of Afghan women' which I found so touching. But it can be difficult as well. In interviews, people always ask me questions about being a Muslim and about politics. At first it was quite rewarding and I enjoyed it. But after the first 200 interviews, I realised that it was all about me being Muslim. I won a beauty contest, not a politics degree."

However, she conceded that being asked for her serious opinions has led her to reflect on what she believes, to the extent that she is considering a political career after university.

Ms Kohistani eventually found herself in London as a 10-year-old refugee, after her father, Khushal, 50, and mother, Layla, 41, who lived a liberal, middle-class existence in Afghanistan, fled just as the Taliban were coming to power in 1996. She has some memory of the country's move towards civil war and when Kabul was finally attacked, she remembers looking out of the window to see bombs falling. The family settled in Southall, West London, where Ms Kohistani became fluent in English, as well as speaking Farsi, Russian and Dari, and nurtured her ambition to become a model.

It is with some irony that she notes how her success in a beauty contest has pushed her on to the political stage. She has spoken out for British Muslims, most recently expressing her dismay at the tone that government statements have taken since the London bombings, saying they created "negative stereotypes" of Muslims which could nudge some closer towards extremism.

Reflecting on the past year, she feels the Tube attacks unified communities in one sense, as the people who were killed came from many different backgrounds and included Muslims. But she also believes that some "insensitive" comments by the Prime Minister have fuelled hostility towards Islam, namely his speech in July this year, urging moderate Muslims to "stand up against the ideas" of extremists in the community.

"Tony Blair addressed Muslims in particular, telling them that they need to sort out the problem within." she said. "That was a huge stereotype of the Islamic community and many feel penalised, and placed under the 'fundamentalist' category. Even the more moderate Muslims have been stereotyped negatively and feel they have to take actions to prove themselves.

"There's hostility on both sides, towards the Muslim community and from the Muslim community, who are trying not to have self-fulfilling prophecies that meet their stereotype, while the English community feel threatened by them."

Since last July, she has felt a shift in people's attitudes towards Muslims as well as increased levels of suspicion from within the community. "I have noticed a change in other people when I am with friends who wear the hijab (headscarf), and I can see people staring at my friends. "It's not comfortable," she said.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) rejected her criticism, arguing that it was committed to "building strong, positive relationships" with Muslims. A spokeswoman said: "We need to be honest in recognising that we all have a responsibility to do more to tackle the threat of extremism and face down dangerous messages that circulate in local communities. In meetings with ministers in recent weeks, Muslim organisations themselves have acknowledged that they must do more." Meanwhile, Ms Kohistani does not limit her observations to the shifting nature of Muslim identity in Britain. After a year of travelling the world as Miss England, she has met world leaders including Shaukat Aziz, Prime Minister of Pakistan, and exchanged views with a diverse range of Muslim women.

"Shaukat Aziz told me it was women like me that would make the world aware that there are so many more kinds of Muslim women out there than the stereotype that the Western media has of them in a burqa," she said. "Whenever we see images of Afghan women, they are in a burqa but there are so many women who don't look like this.

"My own grandmother never wore a burqa. When people see me, they can't believe I'm from Afghanistan because I'm not covered up.

"The world is stereotyping Muslims. First it's Afghanistan, then Iraq, now it's Iran. Each Muslim community is being, one by one, being scrutinised and dealt with. The focus was once on the Irish community, then communism, and now it's Muslims. We just have to live with it."

She has also used her increased profile to campaign for the most deprived women in Afghanistan. Together with her mother, she is creating a charity, Roshani, which translates as Light in Farsi, to raise funds for educating women and children. "It will be used to provide educational facilities for the most under-privileged but also for mental health. So many women in Afghanistan are illiterate, I felt I needed to do something."

She had intended to travel to Afghanistan last month as Miss England to meet the British troops but was warned against it when the conflict in Lebanon broke out. The ambition to revisit her homeland with her mother, remains unfulfilled, but she hopes to make the emotional trip as soon as she can.