Who says I can't be English, Muslim and a beauty queen?

Hate mail and clerical condemnation will not stop her competing for Miss World
Click to follow
The Independent Online

She couldn't care less about working with animals and children. She has already travelled the world. She doesn't appear in a bikini. And she speaks six different languages. Miss England is a lot more than just a pretty face.

Born in Uzbekistan, Hammasa Kohistani is the first Muslim to win the Miss England title. On Saturday she will represent her country against 103 other women, all competing to become Miss World. The pageant means that China is the 26th country she has explored. And she is prouder to be English than anyone in the world.

But it has not been an easy journey from Uzbekistan to evening wear: when Miss Kohistani was chosen as Miss England, she and her family were subjected to threats and abuse, and Muslim "leaders" condemned her. Rumours reached her that her A-level classmates were grumbling that she should not represent the English.

Hammasa, whose name means "ambition", was born in Uzbekistan because her parents were studying in the country. They returned to their native Afghanistan when she was one year old. Her memories of her childhood home are vague and few. "Once, when Kabul was being attacked, Mum sat me on the window sill and I could see bombs dropping and shooting," she recalls. "Mum started screaming because bullets began flying past our faces, so we all had to spend the night in the corridor as that didn't have windows or doors."

It was for their daughter's sake that the Kohistani family - a law lecturer and a government administrator - decided to leave Afghanistan in 1996, as the Taliban were rising to power. "Conditions had always been quite bad, but they became too bad to stay," she says. "My parents decided it was safer to leave, especially having a firstborn girl: those are not good conditions for girls." Her parents both have master's degrees and have always encouraged her academic achievements, and though she is only 18, she knows what she wants. She is taking a break from her four A-levels while she tours the world as Miss England, but when she finishes school she wants to work in advertising design - "on the other side of the lens".

She would like to go back to Afghanistan, but only to visit. "My parents talk about it quite a lot, but it would never be safe for me there," she says, sadly.

Both her parents had studied in the former Soviet Union, so before Hammasa started school the family fled to Moscow, where they had friends. They lived in Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Dubai before settling in Southall, west London. "I have lived in four countries and travelled in 25 - that's why I can speak so many languages," she says. "I speak Persian, Russian, Dari [spoken in Afghanistan], French ... And I had to learn English when I was nine years old."

Her knowledge will be coming in handy now. Miss Kohistani and finalists from 103 other countries are in China, where Miss World will be chosen on Saturday. "This is my first trip as Miss England, and probably the biggest of my life," she says.

There were those back in London who were not entirely supportive of their new representative when she was awarded the Miss England title in September. Message boards carried spiteful discussions saying Miss Kohistani was not truly English and should not be representing the country. She barely acknowledges the slights. Instead, she is thrilled by the support she has received from Muslims and non-Muslims. She says she feels no pressure to be a role model for her co-religionists. "I am proud to be what I am regarding background, religion and what I represent," she says. "So many Muslim people have contacted me to say that they are proud of me and are supporting me. I have letters from Jewish people who have congratulated me, too."

As for Englishness, she knows who she is. "The colour of your skin or your hair does not make you English," she says. "What you believe makes you English. I probably consider it more of a home than many other people because I have travelled more to get here. I have been chosen as an ambassador for England, and that says it all for me."

Hammasa Kohistani's voting number is MW204. You can vote online at www.missworld.tv, via text to 81106 or by phoning 0901 111 2005.

Comments