Saturday, September 18, 2010

Yasmeen Ghauri

Montreal — Nothing is sure to please an elder more than word that a child of the community has gone on to fame and fortune. But in Montreal’s Muslim community, it the accompanying visuals that have created an uproar reverberating between generations.

Daughter of an imam, or religious leader, Yasmeen Ghauri’s foray into modeling was almost accidental. But her beauty quickly caught the eye of the fashion world, where her spectacular success puts her in the same league as supermodels Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell.

Images of her are a continuous presence in leading fashion magazines, and she commands as much as $10,000 a day when she graces the runways for Chanel, Armani, Valentino and Europe’s other leading haute couture houses.

But at home, her accomplishments are greeted with a mixture of fascination and fear, as parents and children of a religion whose practices are nurtured far away grapple with the strains imposed by their host culture.

According to the standards brought decades ago from the Muslim world, Ghauri, known professionally simply as Yasmeen, is considered to flout the importance Islam places on modesty.

Orthodox Muslims fear her prolific media presence will taint their children’s minds.

But its difficult for those who grew up with Yasmeen not to hold her up as a super-role-model for everything they have been conditioned to achieve.

A recent immigrant from Pakistan calls them CBC’s — Canadian- Born and Confused. They are first generation Indo-Pakistani Canadians whose parents guage success in terms of the ability to secure financial wealth through education while being good Muslims at the same time. Many are finding it difficult to make it on both levels.

The uproar over Yasmeen’s high profile has left her an outcast in her hometown community and has shifted accross the generations in her family and beyond — creating an irrevocable schism between her father and the mosque he led for 22 years.

It is New Year’s Day 1993 and 20-year-old Concordia University student Arsalaan Patel is still nursing a hangover from last night’s over-exhuberance. His voice is hoarse and he continues to slur his words as he talks about the gulf between his Islamic upbringing and his Canadian soirees.

“I live a double life”, says Patel. “I do one set of things at home, but I do whatever I want when I’m at school. If I acted wild and crazy at home, or if my friends knew of some of the things I do, my parents would be socially ostracized. People would view me as a bad example for their children.”

He continues, still slurring his words, “Most of my friends are brown and Pakis. They are basically like me. We go through the religious motions just to keep our parents happy.”

Then he gets to the point of the interview — the stunning and vivacious Yasmeen.

Did my mother show you the stuff about Yasmeen?

My father keeps a whole file on her and brings it out now and again to show people. If you really want to see some neat pictures, you should ask him to show it to you.

His tone changes to one of disdain.

I don’t know why they even keep the stuff. My mother is constantly videotaping the fashion shows on TV and then calling me to watch them when Yasmeen’s on. I couldn’t care less. But my mother and father are somehow obsessed by her.

So is the rest of the Muslim community in Montreal. Unlike the dichotomy of growing up between two cultures, which many parents refuse to acknowledge, Yasmeen continues to hold the attention of the devout. At the dinner parties where the elite socialize, parents lament the degeneration of religion and culture, and envariably cite the example of Yasmeen Ghauri.

But Yasmeen’s story is not about polarizing the tightly knit Muslim community of Montreal alone or for that matter, its counterpart in Edmonton, where her appearance on the cover of this August’s Flare fashion magazine caused a local imam to denounce her during a Friday-prayer sermon.

It also has had its impact on her home and her parents, whose separation, some say, may have had a hand in a headstrong Muslim female deciding to strike out on her own.

Yasmeen’s mother, Linda Ghauri, is of German descent and her father, Moin, was the imam or religious leader at the ICQ, or Islamic Community of Quebec. Her upbringing was typical in some ways — she was constantly encouraged to excel in school and, like other Muslim children she attended Islamic Sunday school classes, where children are taught taught Arabic — the language of the Koran, the holy book itself, and stories from the Hadith – - sayings and acts of the prophet Mohammed — the second source of Islamic law.

Her growing up saw racial taunts and a feeling of deprevation. In one published interview she says “Kids called me `chocolate-cake face’ And when you’re eight years old you know…I wasn’t poor but we didn’t have any money. When you see kids who are rich — their houses their clothes — you see what you’re missing.”

But, by the same token, Yasmeen was always complimented for being pretty when she was growing up. Many remember her as a shy girl.

Her strict Muslim family stressed traditional Islamic values coupled with tight parental control. The daughter of the religious leader of the ICQ, Montreal’s main mosque and hence one of the most prominent spiritual leaders for the city’s and suburb’s 35,000 Muslims, was expected to be an explarary role model for her peers.

But there were other happenings in her life. Her parents’ marriage had begun to break down and there was constant bickering back at home — one reason put forward by a close friend to explain Yasmeen’s decision to become a model.

The friend, who requests anonymity, says

Yasmeen’s self- reliance is a direct result of her parents’ failed marriage. Linda Aunty basically got fed up with her and Yasmeen being left alone at home all the time while Uncle Moin was at the mosque.

Linda Aunty felt he was married more to the mosque then he was to her, so she left him. Besides being German, she wasn’t accepted very much by the community and Yasmeen was always picked on by Muslim kids because of it.

Yasmeen refuses to grant an interview through her agent, and when a reporter calls her in New York, she says only two words, “Fuck off!”

Moin Ghauri is under strict orders from his daughter not to talk to reporters. But he gives in to dispute this friend’s version of events.

I was always there for Yasmeen. If she said, `Daddy, I want to go swim in the ocean,’ then I took her to Florida to swim in the ocean. If she said, `Daddy I want to see Los Angeles,’ I took her to see L.A. When I went to Hajj and Pakistan (his home country), I asked her if she wanted to come. She could go anywhere she wanted to but always with me and always under my guidance.

Ghauri believes what has happened to his daughter is no different from what is happening to other the children of other Muslims. He says that in attempting to provide their children the benefits of a North American lifestyle, many Muslim parents have lost sight of the overll picture of what they want.

They do not have any motivation to carry on life on an Islamic principles. They have chosen to be part-time Muslims, and full- time cultural Canadians. The majority of Muslim parents are afraid to give their children a religious education that consists of more than they know themselves. What the children end up with and practise is a hodge-podge, it has nothing to do with Islam really, and this is where I have so much frustration.

Yasmeen saw this and did not understand what the hell was going on. She used to tell me, `Daddy, what you teach me in Islamic sce is something else. At home we are practising something and at school my Muslim friends want me to do something else.

What it essentially boils down to,” says Ghauri, “is that the parents are not secure in their own understanding and practise of Islam, and thus it is impossible to expect that their children will be able to withstand the social pressures of this society.

And indeed, a journey into the heart of Islam left Yasmeen immersed with a religious fervour she couldn’t maintain at home.

“It was interesting when I went to Saudi Arabia,” says Yasmeen in an interview with Details magazine. “When I came back, I said, `OK, OK, I’m in going to be really religious, I’m going to cut off school, I’m going to cover my head and everything…Then I woke up and said: This is ridiculous, I haven’t gone to hell.”

My father was very pushy. He tried to make me something I wasn’t. The more you push me, the more I run in the other direction.

But I never would have chosen modelling as a profession. It came as a complete surprise. When I was 17, someone said I should be a model, and he really nagged me. So I said, `OK, let me try.

That someone was hair-dresser Joseph Del Torto, owner of Montreal’s Platine Coiffure, whose artistic director convinced the lanky teenager to come in from the street and pose for some photographs in returning for getting her hair done for free. They had spotted her walking past the salon and had found her a stunning example of East-meets-West.

“She didn’t think of herself as a beauty”, says Del Torto. “She was not American. She was half German and half (East) Indian and her Indian side dominated.”

During July 1989, Del Torto arranged for a number of photo sessions, including a series in which she appeared topless with her arms covering her breasts. “She was exotic and different at the same time. The fact that she was Indian made her.”

Although the topless photo was never widely distributed, Yasmeen’s choice of career began to affect her father’s.

Moin Ghauri was already finding that his secular employment was keeping him for fulfilling all his duties as religious leader. As a result, the ICQ’s governing body, the majlis-ul-shura, was making preparations to find another imam to lead the prayers during working hours.

But, as with other religious leaders, Ghauri had his political detractors. They got their golden opportunity when Yasmeen’s pictures started appearing, first in local publications and then in the international editions of well-known fashion magazines.

Not all parashioners had heard of Yasmeen’s chosen career until a pamphlet entitled Imam in Hot Water began appearing at the mosque. It posed the poignant question — why should a person who could not even regualate the affairs of his own family be entrusted with providing religious guidence to the community at large?

When the candidate for imam arrived for the trial period required by the ICQ, it turned out he spoke niether English nor French. Still, given the charged athmosphere, he was allowed to begin his trial period, despite Ghauri’s protests about his lack of language skills.

Soon after, on the eve of the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, many refused to participate in the ritual prayer services which Ghauri had led at the mosque for 22 years. That was the last time Ghauri set foot inside the ICQ.

“I am not looked upon kindly by the community here,” says Ghauri in a tired voice tinged with sadness. “I have been cut-off. It is a major withdrawal.”

It does not matter that he publicly condemns his daughter’s choice of career as un-Islamic.

She is still my daughter, but her actions are completely contrary to the teachings of Islam.

Ghauri says he remains on good terms with his ex-wife and daughter.

Yasmeen only calls once or twice a month, but we are all still speaking to each other. Yasmeen takes very good care of her mother — she took her to Aspen earlier this year to ski.

But what bothers him most, he says, “is that people sometimes make me feel as though they know more about my daughter than I do.”

“Why do the Patels keep such extensive files on my daughter, as though they’re conducting a private investigation?” he asks rhetorically. “Does it not show bad taste and a very poor character?”

They are very high-standing members of the community. For what purpose would they want to show this file? Is it for the benefit of their eyes or the lust of their hearts? What they are doing is very stupid.

He is also angry at their perception of ho a model lives and works. “All they know are the things they read in magazines,” he says pointing to another published interview with Yasmeen.

I work”, says Yasmeen, describing her life, “then I go home. I don’t go out because if I do I can’t wake up the next morning. I act like a witch. Basically, I work, eat, and sleep.”

But the community is not buying this. Having taken care of warding off any religious subversion by firing her father, conservative families are ensuring their children do not stray from the pre-set path as a result of any merit they perceive in the life of their one-time playmate.

One such family is the Abdullahs.

Alam and his sisters Sara and Shaheen live with their parents.

Alam is studying engineering at the University of Toronto, Sara is pursuing a commerce degree at McGill, and Shaheen is studying health science at Mariannopolis College CEGEP.

They are all seated in the living room, deliberately within earshot of both parents. Their father hovers nearby, hoping to pick up scraps of the discussion. The situation becomes quite comical as he enters the room on three separate occassions, bringing offerings of walnuts, fruit, and finally a slab of chocolate, of which the latter is finally accepted in exasperation.

The viewpoints of the children are just what the father is hoping to hear.

“Alam has to receive the best education and be allowed to go away to school”, declares Shaheen, the youngest of the three. “After all, he’ll be supporting a family. Sara and I won’t necessarily be pursuing a career. We’ll probably get married and have families of our own to look after, so there’s really not a need for us to be as well educated.”

Alam nods in approval just before Sara speaks out.

You know, I didn’t really want to do commerce. I wanted to study fashion design but after my parents talked to me about it, we decided that it was not a good profession for a Muslim girl to be in.

I thought to myself that if I ever worked as a fashion designer, I might be designing some of the same things people like Yasmeen wear. I don’t agree with what Yasmeen is doing so I don’t want to be involved in any way with that sort of thing.

Isra Rahman, a 17-year-old college student born in Canada, also yearns to be a true Muslim, but she isn’t sure it’s really possible in this country.

“We are existing in a foreign country”, she says. “Islam is very clear about waht we can and can’t do. What we can eat and drink, how we dress, and the relationships that we can have with members of the opposite sex are explicitly spelled out. Things like dating and drinking, which are integral parts of my friend’s social lives, are things that I will never be able to do.”

“I look at myself and I feel pity”, she laments. “I know that the clothes I wear when I go to school are not Islamic, but I do it anyway. I know what Yasmeen is doing is not Islamic either, but I still buy Vogue and look for her picture, and I get a thrill when I find it.”

In the end, when I think about my life, I feel that I got screwed over by having to living in this country. For the moment I’m stuck in this place, but given the opportunity I would marry somebody from Pakistan and go to live over there. I would have a greater chance of being a Muslim.

University of Alberta Islamic expert Saleem Qureshi, who himself is criticized for being too liberal by many Canadian Muslim organizations, differentiates between practising the the visible rituals of Islam and what he believes is the true essence of the religion.

They believe, their practise changes with them. If they are modern they will have a modern outlook on religion. If they are conservatives, they will have a conservative outlook. Even though Muslims have been living in Canada for over a century and through four generations, this brand of conservatism is expressed through male dominance and an exageration of the virtue of modesty for women.

The essence of Islam when it was revealed was justice and fairness. Islam is flexible enough to accomodate all sorts of Muslims. The basic minimum belief is the unity of God and the belief in his prophets. Beyond that it is between the individual and the Creator.

Meanwhile, Ghauri is philosophical about his daughter’s future.

She is doing something that encourages others to be doing bad things. She is at the apex of her career now, but I am sure that she will one day regret what she is doing.

In another interview, Yasmeen responds, “I know he doesn’t like it, but he can’t really change it. I am sure somewhere deep inside he’s proud.”

Ghauri laughs when hears about this. “I disagree completely. I am always praying to Allah to return Yasmeen to her origins. I am sure she will come back,” he says optimistically. “If not today, then someday.”

But underneath the harsh words of condemnation she receives from her father and the rest of the Muslim community, Yasmeen is right — there is pride.

“At least the world knows our women are beautiful too,” says a critic, at the end of a long dinner party where the topic of conversation was once again Yasmeen.


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