The Swimsuit Model and the Burqah


Australian model Michelle Leslie returned to Australia on Tuesday. While 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 her friends revealed that Michelle had embraced Islam at least two years ago, the media’s cynicism about her conversion largely subsided.

But now that she is back in Sydney, Leslie will be preparing to greet another frenzy. She 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 practise Islam and do something decent or don’t practise it at all.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

This ‘all or nothing’ mentality has become all too prevalent among 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 these leaders’ strict 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.

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

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 how they should dress. Just as it is not the business of politicians to regulate 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 rights as any other woman to participate in mainstream society. Whether they are converts or women brought up in Muslim families, they should be allowed to make their own choices, without men and their often irrelevant cultural standards seeking to become involved.

Yet the fact is that so many Muslim leaders find it impossible to bridge the cultural gap that often divides them from mainstream society. Whether as converts or reverts, many non-cultural Muslims face difficult decisions and choices beyond the almost impossible task of adopting a new faith.

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

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. She serves alcohol, and enjoys drinking white wine or champagne mixed with orange juice. Both are habits regarded as sinful by mainstream Islam.

But woe betide 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.

More 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 , 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 rednecks 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 said the same thing about 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.

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.

I hope Australians of all faiths welcome Leslie home with open hearts.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.