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When Muslims are faced with haram foods

Should the Muslim contestants on the popular TV series MasterChef Australia be made to cook with pork and alcohol? We talk to the show's female contestants Amina Elshafei and Samira El Khafir.

Amina Elshafei. Stephen Lock for The National. September 29, 2013
Amina Elshafei. Stephen Lock for The National. September 29, 2013

Another riveting series of MasterChef Australia has reached its finale and with it comes an end to weeks of nail-biting challenges that have made it compulsive viewing for thousands across the Middle East.

But one aspect of the Fox TV show, which has dogged the past two series and, at times, threatened to overshadow the drama on screen, is a question that still refuses to go away: should Muslims be made to cook with pork and alcohol?

The question has been raised by the appearance of two Muslim female contestants in series four and five, albeit unwittingly.

Amina Elshafei, a Saudi-born cook with Egyptian and Korean parents, was the first contestant on the show who visibly wore her faith on her sleeve and her head. Although she was knocked out before the final 10, she became the most popular entrant – not least surprising to herself – largely down to her bubbly personality and good humour.

She was the inspiration for Samira El Khafir to apply for the most recent series. The housewife and mother-of-two with Lebanese heritage got much further and came third in the contest; her bright, floral hijabs becoming as much a part of the show as her distinctive cackle and opinionated banter.

Two women who couldn’t be more different – but the debate that unites them and rages on as applications open for series six is whether more allowance should have been made for their religion instead of producers insisting they cook with whatever they were presented with.

El Khafir, in particular, was knocked out over a pork bun. She won a place back in the show a week later in a challenge, but it prompted Samantha Balaton-Chrimes, a lecturer of international studies at Deakin University, to write in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Pork, ham and bacon are well known to be haram … how one of Australia’s most popular television shows makes a call between toleration and accommodation of the customs of religious minorities is something that demands ­interrogation.

“It was made clear … we have not come much further in the way we interact with minorities.”

The debate has been deeply divisive and drawn thousands of comments in online forums, with some declaring there should be no special treatment for Muslims and others insisting it was unfair for the women to cook with unfamiliar products they could not taste.

El Khafir, 29, a born-and-bred Australian whose parents are from Tripoli in Lebanon, says she was oblivious to the debate during the six months she lived in the MasterChef house, where contestants have no access to phones or the internet.

“At the end of the day, I entered a cooking show,” she says. “If a vegetarian had entered, they would have had to cook with meat. I knew there was a chance it would happen.”

She had other motives for applying. When her daughter Mariam was born two years ago, El Khafir suffered from a severe bout of postnatal depression and took more than a year to recover.

“What got me out of my anxiety was food and cooking,” says the Melbourne-based El Khafir, who has become an ambassador for the postnatal charity Panda since leaving the show.

“Before going on the show, my father said: ‘You know you will be representing Islam on national television,’” she says. El Khafir adds she was conscious of how her behaviour on screen might be interpreted, but decided her mission to represent other mothers suffering from depression was motive enough not to hold back.

“It got them to realise we are not oppressed, we do voice our opinion and follow our dreams and have passions that we like to fulfil. It has opened up the eyes of many different people.”

Elshafei, a 29-year-old paediatric nurse, was the first Muslim on the show to face the dilemma of whether to cook with banned ingredients.

She wore gloves when doing so on the advice of her Egyptian father and Islamic scholars. “There are different interpretations, but I went on the basis that I was not selling or tasting them,” she says.

“It was something I worried about before going in [the house] and there were comments during the show saying I should not have had any contact with pork, but I respect my faith and would not do anything to question it.”

Ultimately, she says the message has been one of Muslims as positive role models: “A lot of people have said it was nice to see Muslims as normal, everyday people.

“Food is one of those wonderful factors in life. No matter what issues or disagreements you have, the moment food is set on the table, everyone gathers round and has a wonderful meal. That is what matters most.”

artslife@thenational.ae