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."

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