A Muslim beauty queen is set to become the first Miss England contestant to compete wearing a hijab.
Maria Mahmood, 20, came runner-up in the Miss Birmingham heat and has made it through to the semi-finals of the national competition.
If she is successful, Maria will then take part in the Miss England finals, with the winner going on to represent the nation in Miss World.
Beauty queen: Maria Mahmood, pictured, will compete in the semi-finals for Miss England
Trailblazer: The 20-year-old is the first hijab-wearer to take part in the beauty competition
Wowing the judges: Maria, second from left, at the Miss Birmingham competition last week
Maria, an aspiring social worker, said she wanted to challenge the negative stereotypes faced by Muslims and that she wanted to ‘represent diversity and multi-multiculturalism’.
Speaking to FEMAIL, the beauty queen added she is still undecided on whether she will take part in the contest’s swimwear competition.
While a Muslim woman has previously been crowned Miss England, Maria is the first hijab-wearer to take part.
She admitted she felt the weight of the responsibility she was taking on: ‘I wear a hijab, you are really wearing your Muslim identity,’ she said.
‘In today’s society we [Muslims] are not exactly loved because what is happening in the world.’
Commenting on the misconceptions about wearing a hijab, she added: ‘Everyone sees a woman covered and think I’m oppressed, but am I not free if I choose to cover my skin?’
Challenging stereotypes: Maria wants to show the Muslim community is ‘moving forward’
Radiant: Maria was worried about entering but said ‘you don’t have to look like a supermodel’
Maria decided to apply for Miss Birmingham, her first beauty pageant, after a friend sent her a link to the application.
However she thought she stood little chance of being accepted.
‘I told the organiser, “I have wardrobe restrictions and I am not a size 8,”‘ Maria said. ‘I am new to the pageant world so I didn’t know. But she said: “You don’t need to worry, there is not a bikini round any more”.
‘You need to wear good clothes and you need to look polished but you don’t need to look like a supermodel.’
Maria also wanted to prove wrong the childhood bullies who had tormented her over her looks.
Empowering: The aspiring social worker said she is proud to ‘wear her Muslim identity’
Committed: Maria will soon start work with a charity for mothers with post-natal depression
‘Growing up, I used to get bullied told that I was so ugly I should commit suicide,’ she said. ‘I wanted to show that it didn’t have to be this way.’
Maria was fast-tracked through to the final where she competed against 30 other women and was named first runner up.
‘On the day, I was very nervous. I was the only hijab-wearing person there.
‘You know when you’re nervous anyway, and then you become even more nervous because you don’t see anyone else who looks like you?’
But the judges were impressed with Maria’s performance and she made it through to the top 10 before finally being crowned first runner-up, ensuring her a place in the semi-finals.
Deeper meaning: Maria said having an important message is more important than your looks
Talented: Maria fashioned her own cropped jacket to wear over this sequined evening dress
‘You need to be, confident, well-spoken and be motivated to spread a good message,’ she said.
She continued: ‘Afterwards I had the judges coming up to me telling me how much they loved what I was representing. That really, really felt good.
‘An Indian girl came up to me afterwards and said: “As an Asian woman I would never, never consider doing this but now seeing you I definitely will pursue it”.
‘You shouldn’t let your skin colour and your race hold your back.’
Inspiration: Maria is already inspiring women from minority groups to enter beauty pageants
Maria is now looking ahead to the semi-finals, which will be held in Newark, Nottinghamshire, in July.
But the contestant remains undecided on whether she is going to take part in the swimwear round.
‘I am pretty sure it is an optional round, if I felt like doing it, I would do it,’ she said. ‘But I would obviously wear something suitable to me.’
‘There is what you call a burkini but I don’t know how I feel about that. I make my own clothes so I would probably make something that was appropriate but still swimwear. We’ll see.’