This story originally appeared in the Vaughan Citizen.
At first glance, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered woman is not what you would expect from a beauty queen.
But then again, few many beauty queens have done what Tahmena Bokhari has.
She has learned five languages, helped victims of natural disasters, and spent years living in third-world conditions in Pakistan.
To many, Vaughan native Ms Bokhari is a world of contradictions.
She’s Canadian, but Pakistani. She’s Muslim, but also a feminist. She is a Seneca College professor, a social activist, married and, to top it all off, Mrs. Pakistan World
But to Ms Bokhari, she is none of these. She is simply Tahmena.
“For me, as a Pakistani woman, I really feel that we have to find a way to balance all these identities,” she said. “It shouldn’t have to be one or the other, because all of them shape who we are.”
Ms Bokhari is used to juggling multiple identities.
Born in Toronto and raised in both Pakistan and Vaughan, her cultural identity is as diverse as her experiences.
She is the fourth winner of Mrs. Pakistan World, a beauty pageant that focuses more on achievements than looks.
There’s no bikini contest, but there is a series of interviews that includes questions such as how the India-Pakistan conflict should be resolved.
At five-foot-five and 32 years old, Ms Bokhari differs from the image that might come up when you think of a beauty queen. She is pretty, but not the type to make crowds stop in their tracks. But that’s not why she was selected.
“Her community work was so extensive, so we saw her as a very strong contender,” said Sonia Ahmed, president of Mrs. Pakistan World.
Extensive might be an understatement. A graduate of the University of Toronto, she has a master’s degree in social work. She’s travelled to more than 20 countries to help people in need. She spent six weeks in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake that left the country’s social infrastructure in ruins.
While there, she met an elderly man who had built a gravesite for his nine family members that died as a result of the earthquake. Despite the horrible twist of fate, she noticed the man was completely at peace with himself and his surroundings. She said seeing the man completely content reaffirmed her own identity, and made her realize how disconnected she was from herself in North America.
“It definitely validated who I am,” she said. “Even though I have a degree from the University of Toronto, one of the best universities in the world, I was learning from these people. I was learning from them the basics of being a human being.”
As a Muslim woman, Ms Bokhari says she has always had to deal with being labeled or catagorized. But when she returned from Pakistan, she did not see herself as a Pakistani, as a Canadian, or as a Muslim. She just saw herself as another human being.
For her, the role of Mrs. Pakistan World is an important step in showing young Pakistani and Muslim women that they don’t have to be just one thing. They can be anything they want.
“We’re still, as a people, struggling to see individuals in multi-faceted ways,” she said. “Multiple dimensions in people is something that we can’t really comprehend. It’s hard for us to see all those sides.”
Pageant president Ms Ahmed notes that an important part of Ms Bokhari’s role is challenging the perception of Pakistani and Muslim women as submissive, uneducated and unambitious.
“A lot of the time what happens with Pakistani girls is that they do get educated, but ultimately the goal is to get married and be forgotten,” she said. “Instead of them being forgotten, we decided it would be better to create a beauty pageant for married women where they could showcase their talents.”
Naturally, the pageant has been met with mixed reactions. While praised by some as being an avenue for Pakistani women to move forward, others, such as Dildar Ahmed from Maple’s Ahmadiyya community, believe it is against Islam.
“We do not like ladies taking part in beauty contests,” he said. “It’s not good because it is against Islam.”
But Ms Ahmed said that the pageant’s detractors only strengthen the contest’s goal.
“Conservatism, unfortunately, exists in Pakistan,” she said. “We have a choice, either we go forward, or do nothing.”
When Ms Bokhari entered the contest she knew there would be some backlash. But she still feels the pageant is important in order to change the perception of Pakistani women, both within the community and outside of it.
“Now I can become an international icon where I can represent Pakistan,” she said. “The more you put barriers and limitations on any individual, you’re not going to grow as a community.”
And for her, the role is an opportunity to finally change the portrayal of Muslim and Pakistani women that she has never been comfortable with.
“There’s so much else to Pakistan that I want to be able to show the world. That’s why I got involved in this, to diversify the image of women that we see, as well as the image of Pakistan.”