Monday, November 21, 2005

The Dressing-Down of Michelle Leslie

Australian model Michelle Leslie returns to Australia over the next few days. Whilst in an Indonesian prison, this swimsuit and underwear model decided to don a head scarf. At one stage, she even wore a "burqah" covering her entire face.

Some Australian media had a field day with her alleged "conversion on the road to Bali prison". When friends of her revealed that Michelle had embraced Islam at least 2 years ago, the media cynicism on her conversion largely subsided.

But as Michelle's plane prepares to land on the Sydney Airport tarmac, she greets another frenzy. Ms Leslie has been told by the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) to cease her modelling career.

Dr Ameer Ali, AFIC President and economics lecturer, was quoted in Sydney's Daily Telegraph as saying:

"If she is a Muslim I don't think she should go back to her job as an underwear model because Islam is about modesty. Taking off her clothes and being half-naked on the catwalk will raise a lot of eyebrows in the community. She can't have it both ways. Either practice Islam and do something decent or don't practice it at all."

This "all or nothing" mentality has become all too prevalent amongst the first generation migrants who dominate leadership roles within Muslim peak bodies and organisations. New converts or young Muslims returning to their faith are expected to immediately conform to a set of standards.

But this attitude doesn't account for human realities. We all have to start somewhere. And if some of us end up choosing to regard ourselves as Muslim, this does not necessarily translate into a complete change of career or lifestyle choice.

Ms Leslie has a number of modelling contracts awaiting her return to Australia. Although the writer is no theologian, it is an Islamic theological given that her taking up modelling will not in itself take her outside the fold of Islam. The President of AFIC will know this. Or at least he should.

Further, Dr Ali needs to sort out whether he wishes to speak for (his version of) Islamic orthodoxy or Aussie Muslim reality. Perhaps he should take a walk down Auburn Road in Auburn in the geographical heart of Sydney and see what modern Aussie Muslim women choose to wear. He will see it isn’t all that different to what Ms Leslie chose to wear upon her release.

One's being Muslim is a product of one's faith. And belief is a matter of the heart. Only Michelle Leslie and her Creator know what is in Michelle Leslie's heart. Further, it is not for the Presidents of peak Muslim bodies to be telling Muslim women who they should choose to dress.

Just as it is not the business of politicians to be regulating Muslim dress. Dr Ali's comments mirror those of conservative Liberal Party backbenchers who want to see the traditional Muslim hijab banned from state schools.

Muslim women living on either side of the Tasman have the same opportunities as any other women to participate in mainstream society. Whether converts or women brought up in the West, these women should be allowed to make their own choices without men and their often irrelevant cultural standards seeking to become involved.

Dr Ali’s comments are yet another example of migrant Muslim leaders finding it impossible to bridge the cultural gap that often divides them from mainstream society. Whether converts or reverts, many non-cultural Muslims face difficult decisions and choices beyond the almost impossible task of adopting a new faith.

Ms Leslie has taken an enormous step. She has changed her faith, and it will take her some time for to change her lifestyle. Human beings are not robots or computers that can be programmed into a new set of habits and behaviour.

For many young Muslims growing up in culturally Muslim families, the choice is even more difficult. They are forced to swing life's pendulum in at least three directions between parental expectations, orthodox religion and the western culture they grew up in.

For these new Muslims, both young and converts, conventional mosques and imams are locked in a cultural world totally alien to Aussie or Kiwi conditions.

I have a Kiwi Muslim friend who sometimes works behind a bar and who would definitely give Ms Leslie a run for her money in the good looks department. I first met her for the first time when she was serving beer to my Young Liberal mates, and when we hang out she enjoys drinking white wine or champagne mixed with orange juice. Both are habits not exactly regarded as saintly by mainstream Islam.

But woe-be-tied anyone who says something nasty about her father's religion. My friend may not be the most observant Muslim on the planet, but in terms of passion for her faith I have known few people better and stronger. I reckon she could teach Dr Ali a thing or two about the real spirit of Islam.

Most important than her job and her drinking habits is the goodness of her heart and her wisdom. Despite leading a difficult life, she is one of the most compassionate people I have met. She is extraordinarily sensitive to other people's feelings. I have never heard her speak ill of anyone. And when she rebukes her lawyer-friend Irfan on his over-eating habits, she does it ever-so mildly.

My friend is the living embodiment of what American sufi Hamza Yusuf Hanson once remarked: "A religious person is someone who doesn't want to go to hell. A spiritual person is someone who has been to hell and never wants to go back!"

Islam teaches that what matters more than appearances is a good heart and noble intentions. Some claim that Muslims believe all martyrs go to heaven into the arms of 72 virgins. But the Prophet Muhammad taught that a martyr who dies with the intention of being glorified will in fact be sent to hell. He made the same remark concerning with the cleric and the philanthropist who do good deeds just to be seen.

The same Prophet also spoke of a sex worker who finished her shift and went to the well to drink some water. She saw a dog dying of thirst and gave the dog water first. For that good deed and for the purity of her intention, God made this woman destined for heaven.

I will never forget seeing American sufi Nuh Ha Mim Keller cite this incident during a discourse at the Imam Ali Mosque at Lakemba in May 2003. He added: “I pray God could make me like this woman”. Imagine that. A teacher of the sacred Islamic Sufi spiritual disciplines praying to be like a sex worker.

Like all mainstream faiths, Islam teaches that what counts at the end of the day is the goodness of your heart. Whether you're a neuroscientist, a barmaid, a swimsuit model or a sex worker, what counts isn't what people think of you. What counts is the goodness of your heart.

The author is a Sydney lawyer.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the New Zealand Herald on 22 November 2005 and in New Matilda on Wednesday 23 November 2005.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005