Beauty pageants tend only to drift on our radar for less than positive reasons – think Steve Harvey reading out the wrong winner that time, to the devious joy of Twitter – but this changed over the summer, when a moment at Miss Universe Great Britain gripped our attention for all the right reasons. Muna Jama, a Somali British contestant, strutted out during the swimsuit round wearing a multi-coloured kaftan. At the time, she said: ‘I wouldn’t wear a bikini to a beach, so I’m not going to wear one in a competition to score points.’
It was a big moment for Muna, and a huge celebration of different cultures. We recently sat down with the 27-year-old as part of a film we were making. We soon realised that we wouldn’t be able to fit everything she had to offer into a Facebook vid, so we decided to type up this blog too.
It takes bravery, emotional resilience and most importantly surrounding yourself with strong minded people who are prepared to make great sacrifices to welcome permanent and positive change. I may not be able to unwrite a moment in my life but I know a moment will never define me. I will always rise above your expectations and pushed past your limitations. You are what you say you are, and your imaginations can be your worst enemy unless you overcome your fears. Be careful of what you think of others because it’s a reflection of what you are. Work at being a better person, and one day we can welcome a better World. This moment has proved that I am capable of almost anything I set my mind to and limitations is a status waiting to be changed. I thank everyone who stood beside me and believed in my vision. 🙏🙌❤😘😙😘😍🙆😊💓 ___ #missuniverse #mugb2017 #missuniversegb #fear #migrant #refugee #positive #change #love #modelling #friends #family #girls #pageant #empowerment #inspiration #inspire #aspire #history #munajama #caftan #kaftan #stage #london #dubai #love #indonesia #malaysia @missuniversegb Photographer @leedarephotography
While she may have made her name as a Miss Universe contestant, she’s making a mark as an advocate for her home country, having visited earlier this year. So what inspired her to journey through Somalia?
‘I saw the news, it was about the med sea crisis and I remember the image so vividly. It was a big boat and just so many people, who looked like they were from Africa. I remember seeing a hundred people were dead, and 50 children were on the boat and I couldn’t understand why or how something like this was happening.’
Many of these refugees came from east Africa. Muna, knowing that there must have been Somalis in the boat, felt she needed to know why they were taking such risks: ‘I’ve never been back to Somalia. Until recently, I couldn’t work out why Somalis were doing this.’
A conversation with her grandmother encouraged her to make the journey. She told Muna: ‘You should help people, so many people are helping people and you can, too.’ These words echoed the advice Muna’s mother had once given her: ‘if you can’t do good, then don’t do bad.’
After Muna booked her ticket, she went to tell her grandmother. ‘I went round the house and said, “I’m going Somalia” and she said “that’s exciting, so am I!” And I was like, this is incredible.’
Muna’s grandmother would never make it, however.
‘I remember she told me she loved me, and I told her I loved her too. That was the last conversation I had with her.’ Her uncle called to tell Muna that her grandmother had fallen ill during the flight. Before the plane reached its layover in Dubai, she had died. ‘I remember that conversation, because he wasn’t making sense, not because he didn’t structure his words right, but because I didn’t want to hear.’
Muna’s grandmother was always supportive of her interest in Miss Universe, even persuading her to re-apply when Muna pulled out of the 2015 event. She had wanted to wait until her grandmother arrived in Somalia to tell her that she had been accepted into the 2017 event.
Her death caused Muna to reevaluate her approach to the pageant. ‘People assume the Muslim or the Somalian woman is supposed to behave a certain way. [My grandmother] didn’t meet those standards, but she was absolutely perfect.
‘One of the people that I cared so much about in my life wasn’t there and I felt like I needed to do something – that was me telling the organisers that I’m great just the way I am, I don’t want to change the person I’ve been brought up to be to win a competition. I told the organisers that I won’t be competing in a bikini, because I’m Muslim. I’m proud and this is my body, and I don’t want to display it.’
Muna says she was thankful for the exposure created by her decision. However, after speaking to her about her grandmother and the people she met in Somalia, wearing a kaftan at Miss Universe seems like one of the more insignificant moments of her past year.
In Somalia, she spoke to Anab, a mother who lost her son, Siciid. He drowned as he attempted to reach Europe. ‘She told me that he wanted more out of life. He wanted to go to Europe and become just like you, you know? Have the freedom to travel, education, healthcare, and to become an equal among people. A valued citizen.
‘One day he left for work with his white shirt and black bottoms, and he never came back.’
Anab’s sorrow was shared by many. Muna was told that in her neighbourhood people would ‘literally go door to door’ offering condolences for loved ones that never came home.
These experiences showed Muna that something should be done to discourage people from making these dangerous journeys. As she witnessed with Anab, and other mothers she met, the crisis has ‘left many families in east Africa broken.
‘Most of the young people who are manipulated by human traffickers are told that this is the way to a new life. But they need to understand that while they may feel that they’re doing this for their loved ones, they’re actually doing more damage than good.’
While it’s hard to pin down a concrete solution, Muna knows one thing for certain: young people shouldn’t feel like they need to leave Somalia. ‘We want to help tackle natural disaster so that people don’t have to turn to illegal migration, we want to provide education and provide happiness.
‘Most of these people don’t want to leave home, they don’t want to leave where they love. They just need reasons to stay. I’m the girl that wanted more, I want woman to understand that they are capable of more, men and boys to understand that they are absolutely perfect just the way they are. I believe that one day these people will find happiness within their environment.’