From noses to hips, Rwandans start to redefine beauty

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

By , Correspondent

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    TOO THIN? Contestants hold traditional crafts at Rwanda’s National University pageant.
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    MISS NYAMPINGA 2008: Sandra Uwimbabazi sits while other university contestants gathered around her in Butare, Rwanda.
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Sandra Uwimbabazi knows runways – she's modeled for years – but she stumbled on a recent Saturday here.

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.

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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.

"There is what was called the Hamitic hypothesis," explains Jean Leonard Buhigiro, a professor of history at the Kigali Institute of Education (KIE) in Rwanda's capital. European explorers, and then Belgian colonizers, "tried to describe Rwanda according to social classes, then identified one social class as European ... and the other social group [as] a group which is ugly."

Like most Rwandans, he won't use the words "Hutu" or "Tutsi" – usually considered ethnic groups by outsiders (the terms were legally abolished in Rwanda in 2004). But history makes Buhigiro's meaning clear.

Belgian administrative reports describe Tutsis' "high brow, thin nose, and fine lips." One colonial missionary called them "European[s] under black skin."

Most attendees at the Butare beauty contest won't discuss facial features. The definition of beauty that dominates the pageant world isn't far from what, in Rwanda, is still taboo.

"There is facially an international standard of beauty that is more European," says Professor Craig. "I don't think a woman with an exceptionally broad nose would win an international beauty contest.... On top of that ... is the hair. Can a woman with unstraightened African hair be crowned a beauty? I doubt it."

These debates are ever-present subtexts as pageants grow in popularity here. Miss Nyampinga organizers have drafted their own criteria on the minimum and maximum height and weigh requirements by averaging standards from American, British, and French competitions.

This spring, at the first Miss KIE competition, an audience debate erupted about whether a true Rwandan beauty should be light- or dark-skinned. At the National University, students argued over how curvy the winner should be.

"The more there is this kind of contention, the more aware people are that beauty is political," says Richard Wilk, co-editor of "Beauty Queens on the Global Stage." "There is no kind of absolute standard."

Minister Habineza says beauty pageants recall pre-colonial days. The king of Rwanda once held a competition to choose a wife, he says. The organizers evoked that era by naming the contest "Miss Nyampinga," a traditional word for a woman who embodies physical beauty, social grace, and compassion.

"Some people say, 'This will create division, because beautiful ladies must be tall,' " he says. "But tall doesn't mean to be a Tutsi. And also being short doesn't mean to be a Hutu."

Some students hope that being called beautiful might become as unpredictable.

Alyce Akineza, a journalism student and co-master of ceremonies at Miss Nyampinga, got a round of applause when she said one day, beautiful might not just mean thin. "In case people were wondering, Rwandan women, we look more like this," Akineza said, grabbing her thick hips, "than that," and she gestured toward the contestants, most of whom were Milan-model thin.

"Is there any way we can have a Miss like me?" she asked. "We could call it, 'Fat Almost Beautiful Girls.' Or 'Chubby Girls' Or 'Normal Women.'"

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