By Amal Awad
September 18, 2013
It's easy to disguise the insidiousness of pageantry. Drenched in sponsorship, but with a philanthropic bent, the contestants get tested not only how well they rock a swimsuit, but also on how acute their minds are. Unfortunately, as some of YouTube's greatest hits attest, contestants often falter during question time.
The issue with this sort of competition is its very nature as a contest - the attempt to judge unquantifiable beauty. There's something unholy about how it feeds unrealistic body ideals and places importance on women's looks. The talent and Q&A segments simply pay lip service to the naysayers of beauty pageants.
So it's no surprise that there has been an uproar over the Miss World competition being held in Indonesia, one of the world's most populous Muslim nations. Originally scheduled to take place on the outskirts of Jakarta, it has since been moved to the popular tourist island of Bali (where the majority of the population is Hindu). However, this has not been enough to appease some, with Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia protesting as recently as last Saturday in Java.
The protestors aren't mincing words, some going so far as to call Miss World a "whore contest." It has also been labelled smut and pornographic. Vapid and vacuous it may be; pornographic it is not. Moreover, even though it's been relocated, Miss World organisers still felt compelled to ban bikinis from its beach fashion round under pressure from these "hard-line" Islamic groups.
Now, Indonesia has gone one better in its bid to appease the morally wounded, with the announcement of the Muslimah World contest. The founder of the pageant, Eka Shanti, told AFP that it's "Islam's answer to Miss World." It's still called a "beauty pageant," but instead of looks the contestants will be judged on their behaviour - namely, "you have to be pious, be a positive role model and show how you balance a life of spirituality in today's modernised world," says Shanti.
There are so many things wrong with this concept. Given that Islam is a religion in which believers are judged by no one but God, it's disheartening to see piety become pageantry. Moreover, that Shanti calls it a "beauty pageant" is alarming - "beauty" here means being the ideal Muslimah. An equally unsettling aspect to all this is the focus on female behaviour. Judging a woman's approach to spirituality and her piety only reinforces age-old attitudes, for starters - condemning the temptresses (like those in Miss World), but rewarding the holy.
The contestants of Muslimah World face a different kind of judgment, but the outcome is no different. They're still expected to meet a standard of purity. In workshops, they will cover such areas as Qur'an memorisation and how to be the best wife and mother in Islam. There will also be fashion, but the emphasis will be on modesty, with Hijab being a requirement for eligibility. There's room for more practical elements, like photography and public speaking, but ultimately it's about prayer and piety - neither of which belong in a contest.
Shanti doesn't support the call to cancel Miss World, but there is an insistence on seeing spiritual pageantry as an alternative to the traditional beauty contest. "Do you want to be like the women in Miss World? Or like those in Muslimah World?" Shanti asks. The problem is there doesn't seem to be room to be neither or something in between. The idea that women must fit snugly into one category or another, and the clear suggestion that the females of Miss World are not necessarily moral, pious types, is a dangerous message to send young, impressionable girls.
It's not dissimilar to when Barbie became Muslim. Fulla, less anatomically ambitious than Barbie, wears prayer clothes and pursues "suitable" careers, such as teacher and mother. You wouldn't find her in a bikini. Perhaps it's a good thing that Muslim girls can see a more familiar version of Barbie, but it simply reinforces a mentality of difference. In trying to be the alternative to Miss World or Barbie, the so-called Islamic equivalents seem to make the same mistakes: boxing women in to prescribed ideals of how they should live, dress, behave and even speak. It may well be about promoting positive Muslim role models, but it suggests that a non-Muslim woman, or even a Muslim woman who shows her hair, is immodest.
The Muslimah World contest is presented an alternative to the traditional beauty pageant - yet it's no better. The reality is that both objectify and judge women, just in different ways.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and author of Courting Samira, the tale of a young Muslim woman coming of age. A Palestinian-Australian Muslim, she graduated with an arts/law degree, but following a brief stint in legal practice became an editor and journalist.