London: Somaliland-British Muslim Muna Jama has made headlines around the world in recent days for winning the right to wear a kaftan, rather than a bikini, in the swimwear section of the Miss Universe Great Britain beauty pageant.
Although the 27-year-old did not win the competition, she is making giant strides for women who wish to dress as they please.
The media spotlight on her fight to wear a kaftan has also given her a platform to highlight issues she cares passionately about, namely helping to tackle illegal migration and child abuse in East Africa. As part of her efforts to raise awareness on the matters, she co-founded Cloudless Research, a start-up focusing on humanitarian issues.
Arab News caught up with Jama in her home city of London. She certainly has striking looks — she is slim with fine features and large, expressive eyes. She was simply dressed for the interview in jeans, a white T-shirt and a well-cut jacket. The model looks aside, she is evidently someone with a very clear idea of what she wants to do in terms of bringing attention to the causes she is championing. She is well equipped to shape her message with a bachelor’s degree in media and communications from Goldsmiths, University of London.
After graduating, she worked in the sales department at Mercedes-Benz but her life changed completely when, in 2015, she saw tragic images of desperate people dying in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean. She gave up her job and traveled to Somalia and Egypt to meet refugees in an effort to understand their plight and their motivation for fleeing their homelands.
“In Sabah, near Cairo, I met many people who were promised new lives if they made the sea and land crossings. These vulnerable people who fled from Somalia due to the civil war told me their stories — many have lost family members and are homeless. Some do not have the skill sets or language proficiency to work — some are working as maids or domestic workers.
“In Somalia, I saw so much potential but this is one of the poorest countries in the world. The people are hardworking but they don’t have the resources to help themselves. They need international support,” she said.
She believes that much more focus needs to be put on solving the problems within the countries from which people are fleeing — poverty, oppression and strife.
To understand the route she has chosen to take, it helps to learn more about her family background. Jama was born in Jeddah, her parents, both born in Somaliland, migrated to Saudi Arabia from their homeland when her father’s livestock trade business ran into difficulties due to the civil war. The family subsequently moved to the UK when Jama was just one-month-old and settled in Forest Gate, east London. She is one of ten children — seven boys and three girls. The family are a devout Muslims who regularly attend prayers at the local mosque.
“My religion is a big part of me. I am trying to live my religion as best I know — following the Qur’an,” she said.
She grew up in a majority-Christian area alongside other faiths and cultures. “We always respected each others’ differences,” she said.
Jama said that, as a schoolgirl, she was interested in clothes and fashion and following certain celebrities, such as Rihanna, but not in an excessive way.
“I like dressing up but I have never modeled,” she said. “In terms of my dress — I pretty much wear what I want to wear. My family are very open minded.”
Her mother and grandmother wear the hijab and Jama said that she too would be happy to wear a head covering in the future. She was particularly close to her grandmother who recently passed away in tragic circumstances. She was traveling to Somaliland where Jama was going to surprise her with the news that she was entering the Miss Universe Great Britain competition after winning the right to compete in a kaftan during the swimwear portion of the pageant.
“I was very excited to tell her the news that I was going to re-enter with the intention of going through to the finals,” she said.
Sadly, that conversation never took place as her grandmother died during the flight. This loss is still raw and clearly the influence of her grandmother and her support is something Jama greatly treasures. Indeed, she credits her grandmother and her mother as strong role models in her life.
Jama is keen to state that the competition organizer and all 40 women competing alongside her in the pageant were supportive from the outset regarding her decision to wear a kaftan and she in turn respects their choice to wear swimwear. She has received many messages of support from men and women of different cultures and faith groups from all around the world.
She feels it is important that women should not be pigeon-holed and points out that women participating in beauty pageants often use their role to fight for humanitarian causes.
For the time being, Jama is focused on raising awareness on migration issues and is caught in the middle of a media storm.
“I am just a girl from east London. I am overwhelmed at the moment, I didn’t expect to get this level of attention. I don’t represent a race, religion or country — I represent me. I am Muslim and Somalian and proud of this but my actions are my own,” she said.
She has set her course and is determined to put the publicity to good use.