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From noses to hips, Rwandans start to redefine beauty

A history of identity politics – and genocide – is challenged by university beauty pageants.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / July 18, 2008

TOO THIN? Contestants hold traditional crafts at Rwanda’s National University pageant.

timothy Kisambira/Focus

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Butare, Rwanda

Sandra Uwimbabazi knows runways – she's modeled for years – but she stumbled on a recent Saturday here.

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A tall, slender young law student, Uwimbabazi was one of eight women vying to win Rwanda's most high-profile beauty competition.

On her second lap around the stage, she misstepped in her high heels – but didn't fall. The graceful save as much as her beauty may have won her the title. Poise, some observers said afterward, is now more important than being pretty.

The comment reflects a tension over defining Rwandan beauty. Here the shape of one's nose, hips, or eyes are overlaid with political and historical meaning. During the 1994 genocide, "the first fact was to see the nose to tell if this is a Tutsi or this is a Hutu," says Cyrille Nshimiyimana, a second-year medical student, who was among the 3,000 people packed into the National University auditorium for the Miss Nyampinga contest.

As the nation moves beyond the tragic events of 1994, traditional standards of Rwandan beauty may be changing – or at least are being challenged.

"Beauty contests are used to assert a national identity, particularly in instances where and in places where a national identity is problematic," says Maxine Leeds Craig, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis and author of "Ain't I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty and the Politics of Race."

The pageant stage is a space Rwandans are using to serve two national objectives: advancing gender equality and fostering national unity.

"I had an agenda to promote gender another step," says John Peter Higiro, a fourth-year medical student who founded the Miss Nyampinga competition, which includes students from other major Rwandan institutes of higher learning, at the National University of Rwanda four years ago. The contest encourages women to assert their intelligence and personality, though women have downplayed such characteristics "in our tradition," he says.

Joseph Habineza, whose Ministry of Culture and Sports sponsors the competition, agrees. "They're shy," he says of Rwandan women, "but we want a new Rwandan style.... We really have to liberate them. So it's sort of an emboldening initiative."

It's also a bold step in a country where physical stereotypes have had deadly consequences.

"She must be pretty, in her face and body.... She must have small eyes," says Mr. Nshimiyimana, the medical student. "But we don't look at the nose. Here in Rwanda, we have a problem [with] the nose," he says, referring to how Tutsis were singled out in the 1994 genocide.

An estimated 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by Hutu militias in an event scholars say had its origins in a long history of oppression initiated by Belgian colonists – and propped up by racist notions of European beauty.