From noses to hips, Rwandans start to redefine beauty
A history of identity politics – and genocide – is challenged by university beauty pageants.
(Page 2 of 2)
"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."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.'"