When Shanna Bukhari decided she wanted to be the first Muslim to represent Britain in a global beauty pageant, she suspected the road ahead might not be smooth, but nothing could have prepared her for the abuse she received.
“I have felt in fear for my life,” said the 24-year-old Miss Universe contestant. The attacks escalated last week when Bukhari received her first death threat.
The censure has come from various quarters, ranging from Muslims who claim that she is denigrating the name of Islam, to white supremacists who say that an Asian cannot represent the UK, and to women who condemn beauty pageants as an affront to feminism.
Bukhari, born in Blackburn, grew up in Lancashire and is no stranger to intolerance. When she was nine, she ended up in hospital after a man screaming racist abuse had thrown a brick at her, causing so much damage to her stomach that she suffered a blood clot and had to undergo surgery.
But even she has been surprised by the furore that her participation in the British heats of Miss Universe has prompted. Rather than confirming her hopes that society had progressed since her childhood, the controversy has made her question the state of multiculturalism in modern Britain. “It has highlighted the divisions that exist, a lack of social integration, a lack of adhesion between white and coloured people, and this needs to be addressed,” she said. “I thought my participation might be something that people did not agree with, but I never thought I’d get abused.”
The attacks on the Manchester-based English literature graduate began after a local newspaper ran an article 10 days ago revealing her ambition to become the first Muslim to represent Great Britain at the beauty contest. Since then, she has received around 300 messages a day on her Facebook page, a handful of which are abusive. Most of the negative comments have come from a minority of Muslim men. “I get people saying, ‘you’re not a Muslim’ and ‘you’re using religion to get attention’. I said they were the ones bringing religion into it. I’m not representing Islam; I just want to represent my country, and of that I am very proud. They are trying to control me, using religion as a tool to attack.”
Bukhari accuses her abusers of having the same sort of mindset as those who support “honour” killings and beat women. Many of the comments are, she says, from individuals who want sharia law instead of a liberal democracy. “We simply live in a multicultural society where there are significant numbers of Muslims. Islam is about peace; abusing me is itself wrong in Islam.”
Away from the religious-themed criticism, Bukhari detects a broader anti-female resentment from men who combine sleaze with slurs. “Maybe it’s because I’m a woman saying to other women ‘stand up for yourself, don’t let anyone dictate what you can do or can’t’. Some men don’t like that,” she said.
But not all the abuse is from men: Bukhari has also attracted opprobium from feminists. “I’ve had a few girls saying ‘shame on you’ or ‘rot in hell’. But I’d like to know what their real issues are, so we could have a constructive debate.”
The abuse that truly shocked Bukhari arrived last Tuesday in the form of an online racist rant. Within hours she had shut down her Facebook fan page, but a friend was then sent a number of internet links to images of people murdered for standing up for their principles. “She rang up and said, ‘Shanna, you need to be very careful because he’s trying to make me aware that things will happen’. Not a direct death threat perhaps, but he was trying to say that something is going to happen to me.”
Bukhari takes the threat of physical violence seriously. She makes sure she is never alone, both in her Manchester flat and on the city streets, and has contacted a private security firm for protection when attending charity events to raise money for the Joshua Foundation, a charity for terminally ill children. She fears that Britain’s Miss Universe finals in Birmingham in May will also be a target: “It worries me that haters will turn up. I know what they are capable of.”
One Facebook message calls her a “dirty Muslim” and asks why she is representing Britain “when you don’t even fucking belong here”. Bukhari said: “I actually replied to him in a very calm manner because I’m not one to retaliate, my family taught me to rationalise rather than react. Then I thought ‘why can’t I represent Britain?’ I was born here and am proud to be British. My parents are from Pakistan but I am not going to represent Pakistan as this is my country.”
Bukhari says the abuse has been disillusioning partly because she enjoyed a liberal upbringing; her parents sent her to a Catholic school in Blackburn where she was the only Muslim but was “completely accepted”. It was only when she moved to Manchester in 2001, she said, that she became aware of segregation as an issue. She does not agree with David Cameron’s speech last month in which he asserted that state multiculturalism in Britain had failed. She believes that more must be done to break down mistrust.
Bukhari cites the thousands who have offered their backing. Support has come from Spain, the Middle East, Pakistan, India and China. Most women supporters say she represents not just a role model for Muslim women, but all those who refuse to be cowed by bullies.
During last month’s semi-final for Britain’s Miss Universe candidate Bukhari received the most public votes. Britain has never won the title. It is increasingly possible that its first victor might also be its first Muslim representative.