Muslim women brave wrath of fundamentalists by competing in Miss England beauty contest

But if bookmakers' predictions are realised, such ideals will have more than superficial significance. The favourite to win this evening's final is Sarah Mendly, a British Muslim whose family fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Her CV for the contest includes the ambition of "becoming a peace ambassador between England and the country from which my parents originate".

Of the 40 finalists, Ms Mendly is one of four women with a Muslim background, the highest number of Muslim contestants in the competition's history.

The participation of the four: a professional dancer, a medical graduate, a telesales worker and a model, represents a rare collision between the world of beauty pageants and the issue dominating political and social debate - cultural integration in the wake of the London bombings.

For organisers of the contest, part of an industry that has striven desperately in recent years to reinvent itself as more than a voyeuristic showcase for physical beauty, it is an unexpected opportunity to prove the bathing beauties phenomenon has moved with the times.

Angie Beasley, who runs Miss England and was the winner of 25 beauty titles in the 1980s, said: "It is a multicultural competition reflecting a multicultural Britain and there is no more important a time to underline that.

"When I entered competitions, we would turn up in swimming costumes and high heels. It is not like that any more.

"The girls have to be talented, clever and beautiful. It is more like a fashion show. This may be why more people from ethnic backgrounds are entering."

It may be difficult for those judging tonight's contest to ignore the public relations potential of sending Britain's first Muslim representative to the Miss World contest in China this December, where the winner will be handed a cheque for £55,000.

Despite being born or having lived here since childhood, the four women admitted before yesterday's preliminary round - a talent contest - that they had been made keenly aware of their "Muslim" status by recent events. The pressure increased this week when two Muslim community leaders insisted Islam and beauty pageants were incompatible and suggested the women should be considered to have forsaken their faith.

Sonia Hassanien, 22, who owns a beauty salon in Tyneside, said: "My dad is Egyptian but he came to Britain when he was 21 and he does not practice his faith. My parents did not bring religion into my life. It is great that there are so many Muslims in the contest. Girls should not be discriminated against if their parents are Muslim. We were brought up in England. I feel completely British."

Miss Mendly, a sales representative for the drug company Merck who as Miss Nottingham was leading a text message vote for the Miss England title, said: "There is so much ignorance and prejudice surrounding Islam. Islam does not advocate the killing of innocent people in any shape or form, or the oppression of women. People think: 'How can a Muslim woman enter a beauty competition?' But the competition isn't about beauty, it's about who you are."

They are sentiments to which some have taken exception. Abdul Hamid, vice-chairman of the Lancashire Board of Mosques, this week criticised Miss Mendly despite her decision not to wear a swimming costume at tonight's final in the Liverpool Olympia in front of an audience of 1,500 people.

"There are plenty of Muslims who don't follow the Koran, who don't pray and drink alcohol. But they are not true followers of the Islamic faith," Mr Hamid said. "This includes taking part in beauty competitions for money and exposing your flesh to the world. If she has chosen to take part in this contest, she immediately goes out of the circle of Islam. This competition is business-orientated and has no social significance whatsoever. It not correct for her to take part."

Hammasa Kohistani, 18, whose parents fled Afghanistan, is taking part in tonight's final after winning Miss Maya, a beauty pageant specifically aimed at contestants from Asia. She said her participation in Miss England was spurred, at least in part, by the Taliban's treatment of women: "I want to have my voice heard for all the women who are oppressed - for those who have not had the right to speak out or even work because they live in a male-dominated society."

Dilay Topuzoglu, who was yesterday performing a belly dance to underline her Turkish roots, said: "It is a nod to my cultural background. Just because you are of Muslim origin doesn't mean you have to represent that faith. I believe religion is just very personal."

Contenders for the crown

* Hammasa Kohistani, 18, from Uxbridge, Middlesex. (Miss Maya)
Job: Model and design student
CV: Born in Uzbekistan, speaks Russian and Persian. Has offer of a role in a Bollywood movie.
Ambition: "I would like to make my parents proud because family means the world to me."

* Dilay Topuzoglu, 21, from Romford, Essex. (Miss Essex)
Job: Telesales operator
CV: Born in London to Turkish parents, she is fluent in Turkish. Accomplished belly dancer, without formal tuition.
Ambition: "To further my modelling career and also hopefully join the Metropolitan Police."

* Sarah Mendly, 23, from Beeston, Notts. (Miss Nottingham)
Job: Sales representative
CV: After fleeing Iraq as a child, she attended a Roman Catholic school. Finalist in a national poetry competition and holds grade five piano.
Ambition: "To succeed in all I set out to do."

* Sonia Hassanien, 22, from Washington, Tyne & Wear. (Miss Photographic)
Job: Beauty parlour owner
CV: Won Miss Pears aged five. Fascinated by ancient Egypt and spiritual healing.
Ambition: "To expand my business into a company. To be the best I can be."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital