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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas