May 17, 2002

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Donning a black bikini, Nasma Mohammed is like many beauty queens - young and ambitious - but unlike most of this year's 76 Miss Universe contestants, she is also Muslim.

Shrugging off criticism from Muslim groups who say the display of flesh goes against Islam, the candidate from the oil-rich Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago says her faith has helped her get where she is.

``I'm very religious. My faith has given me an inner peace to accomplish many of my goals,'' says Mohammed, a 23-year-old bank trainee with a bachelor's degree in management and chemistry.

Mohammed is one of four Muslim contestants at the 2002 Miss Universe pageant being held on this U.S. Caribbean territory May 29. The other candidates come from Turkey, Singapore and Egypt - all secular nations.

``No God fearing woman would enter a beauty contest. It is against all the teachings about modesty and good behavior,'' said Mansoor Ibraham of Astra Anjuman Sunaat Ul Jamaat, a Muslim group in Trinidad.

Mohammed acknowledges the opposition.

``In everything you find opposition. What's in your heart and mind is more important than what is on your body,'' she said.

Trinidad and Tobago's population of 1.3 million is split almost evenly between descendants of African slaves and indentured servants from India. The East Indian population is divided between Hindus and Muslims and some Afro-Trinidadians have converted to Islam.

The culture, although conservative in nature, is pure Caribbean in its attitude toward dress, illustrated by its raucous Carnival.

Mohammed said she doesn't follow all the orthodox tenets of the faith, but she prays daily and observes Muslim holidays, such as Ramadan.

``Yes, I am in my swimsuit, but I'm in a very controlled environment,'' she says. ``I'm showing women that it's good to stay healthy and fit.''

Jodan Hassan, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations, said women can find other ways to show their intelligence and ambitions without putting their bodies on display.

``Beauty contests judge women on their bodies,'' she said. ``For Muslims the interaction between men and women is based on modesty.''

In 1972, prior to the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan held its first and only pageant giving Zohra Daoud the title of Miss Afghanistan.

``It was an encouragement for youth achievements. It wasn't a beauty contest then,'' said Daoud from her Malibu, California home. Daoud fled to the United States after the Soviets invaded in 1979, and in 1996 she founded the Afghan Women's Association of Southern California, which raises funds for humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.

That 1972 competition held no swimsuit competition and the dresses were very conservative, said Daoud.

``The beauty contest in the West is a commercial thing. I am really against the swimsuit competition,'' she said.

Miss Egypt, Sally Shaheen, says her desire to be a reigning beauty queen is also within the parameters of her faith.

``Religion is not something to tell you what to do or what not to do,'' said 24-year-old Shaheen, who studied communications and hopes one day to own her own television station. ``I don't harm anyone here.''

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