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
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention