Culture

The New Miss World Australia Wants You To Know She’s More Than A “Muslim Refugee”

When Junkee spoke to Esma Voloder — the newly-crownd Miss World Australia — on Thursday, she hadn’t yet received the inevitable tide of online abuse — but she was ready for it.

As a Muslim woman and former refugee in a country so routinely terrible to both of these groups, the spotlight of Miss World Australia was sure to bring out the bigots.

“I am worried about it,” she told Junkee. “I generally try to steer away from negative comments about myself and what I believe and what I do. But at the end of the day, I have a reason why I’m alive, and I’m intentionally trying to do what’s good.”

“So if people are doing that to me, I’d just say to focus on yourself is more important, because the time that they spend giving me backlash they could be investing into doing something really beneficial and useful for mankind,” she says. “It’s basically a waste of time, for them. For me, I can learn to handle it — but it’s really not harming me as much as it would be harming them.” 

Nonetheless, in the wake of her media appearances this week, backlash from people uncomfortable with a Muslim woman holding the title has begun to roll in. The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that the Miss World Australia organisation has been inundated with “awful and mean” calls demanding Esma be dropped from her role. Miss World Australia supports her wholeheartedly, though, with national director Deborah Miller telling the Tele, “we believe Esma is a strong woman and represents a multicultural Australia.”

I have been working hard to find avenues and raise as much funds for @varietyaustralia @varietyvic before the final cut off date for @missworldaustralia #beautywithapurpose (13th July)- it means a lot to the organisations and to me ❤️ especially to the children though . Some of you have been asking how to help donate before the finals and you can do so through via this link: (in bio too⭐️) https://missworldaustralia2017.everydayhero.com/au/esma-s-fundraiser-for-miss-world-australia-s-beloved-and-cho Thank you so much already – these children really do need it and are my greatest motivation x #children #charity #missworldaustralia2017 #missworldaustralia #help #kids #melbourne #australia #donate #goodcause #changelives

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Esma shatters lazy stereotypes about a whole host of groups: Muslims, refugees, even beauty pageant contestants. She was born in a refugee camp in Austria after her parents fled Bosnia during the Bosnian War, and moved to Australia as a young child. She now holds a degree in psychology, works as a criminal profiler, and says that in all aspects of her life her goal is just to promote what’s good, to the best of her ability.

“For me,” Esma says, “it really isn’t about being an ambassador or representative for those things, but being a person of those things. I just promote what I think is good, and I try to work with good ideas, good people, good energy, good vibes, good thoughts.

“Let’s try not to define individuals by categories, and let’s start looking at what they are providing.”

“I just use my refugee status to inspire my actions, and I use my faith to do the same thing.”

And what has she learnt from these things? “I’m not all-knowing,” she says, “but what I do know, and what I’ve learned from these two concepts, is that I need to put in the work to help people have a lifestyle that everyone’s really deserving of.”  

These aren’t empty words, either. The Miss World pageant incorporates a number of categories beyond beauty, and focuses especially on charity work through its “Beauty With A Purpose” component. Esma says this platform to do good is one of the things that drew her to the competition, and she worked with a number of charities throughout. She regularly speaks at schools about self-esteem and bullying in her role as an ambassador for Bully Zero Australia, and as part of the Miss World competition she sold anime drawings — a hobby of hers — to raise money for children’s charity Variety.

As part of my @missworldaustralia charity fundraising for 2017, I will be commisioning my anime pieces for @varietyaustralia ❤️ (perforated edges not included 😋) I am not a professional artist – but Anime had always been close to my heart and helped form a beautiful childhood , therefore would love to use my passion to help make other childhoods beautiful for the kids at Variety The Children’s Charity. If you have a favourite character you would like drawn or would like to see yourself as an anime figure , I will be drawing one for you in exchange for a donation to the kids at Variety. please send me an email or PM (preferably email) to discuss the details 😊💕 #charity #anime #mwa2017 #animelove #manga #missworldaustralia #art #animelover #kids #otaku #fundraising #animefans #animedrawing #beautywithapurpose

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In her work life, she’s interested in moving into areas of psychology addressing trauma, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, and emphasises the importance of combining clinical testing with an understanding of someone’s background, and an empathetic approach.

It’s a pity, then, that these interests have partly been buried by an Islamophobic backlash. When we spoke yesterday, Esma talked a lot about what it’s like to be pigeonholed as nothing but her most controversial identities. “I’m sometimes scared to say these things,” she says, “because you sort of create the box when you talk about the box, but at the end of the day we shouldn’t be so scared of saying ‘the Muslim girl, the refugee’”.

She hopes, at least, to use her platform to share some more nuanced ideas of what it means to be both of these things. To those who hold narrow-minded views of Muslims, she points out that “at the end of the day, I don’t think there are any two people who are exactly alike to begin with”. Faith for her is deeply personal, and open to interpretation — at its core it’s about “submitting to all that is good, being open-minded, and being a person who knows that they’re not all-knowing”.

“I’ve chosen to choose and accept good, and I’ve chosen to accept that I need guidance for that, and I’ve derived guidance from the Quran,” she says. “It’s made me independent, it’s made me a free thinker, and it’s made me love, accept and understand people better, but also stand for justice.”

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Esma will continue to try to use her platform for good as she progresses to the international component of the Miss World competition in coming months. She’s taking the role seriously — “the bigger the audience the greater the influence, so the more caution and understanding and research, time and energy has to be put into being the best version to fit that role.”

“That’s kind of what I’m going to do — I’m just going to equip myself as best I can to be the best at service.”

For now, if there’s one message cuts through, she wants it to be one of acceptance and open-mindedness.

“Let’s try not to define individuals by categories, and let’s start looking at what they are providing, and what good they’re doing. Let’s take that on board, and work with that, rather than working with something that they state that they believe in and then attributing some sort of perception you have to that person.”

Feature image via Esma Voloder/Instagram