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Why the West Bank won't crown a Miss Palestine

The Palestinian government has indefinitely postponed a Miss Palestine contest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where women often wear head scarves in public in deference to traditional Islam.

By Correspondent / February 16, 2010

Palestinian Salwa Youssef (c.), owner of an advertising firm on the West Bank, stands on a street in Ramallah. Her idea for a beauty contest has been denounced in some quarters as unreligious and unpatriotic.

Debbie Hill/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Ramallah, West Bank

The idea to mount the first-ever Palestinian beauty pageant was part political statement, part feminism, and part personal fantasy.

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When marketing entrepreneur Salwa Youssef began planning a Miss Palestine contest late last year, she knew she was pushing the boundaries of social convention in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where women often wear head scarves in public in deference to traditional Islam.

Since then, she's been denounced online as unreligious and unpatriotic. Meanwhile, the Palestinian government forced her to postpone the competition from the original date of Dec. 26 with no word yet on when she'll be able to hold the event.

"I need more freedom. To be a woman here, you are under control," says Ms. Youssef, who heads her own advertising firm in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "We cannot talk, we cannot choose, we cannot do anything we like. Maybe I would like to be Miss Palestine.''

Youssef also envisions the pageant as an international demonstration of Palestinian normalcy, a counterweight to images of bombings and violence that have become part of the Palestinian campaign for sovereignty.

Contestants will be judged on modeling traditional Palestinian clothing. The bathing-suit competitions that are a staple of many beauty contests will be left out of the pageant – a nod to traditional mores in Palestinian society.

A recruiting campaign at Palestinian universities and colleges across the West Bank prompted dozens of inquiries about participation. But many of those who expressed interest later demurred because family members discouraged participation, says Youssef.

Religious fervor has been on the rise in the Palestinian territories and throughout the region for the past decade. According to a recent survey by the Ramallah-based polling group Near East Consulting, some 83 percent of respondents said they prayed several times a day, and 79 percent said they believe that the Koran should be the main source of the law. The support levels are even higher among women and young people.

"Religion does not allow women to come out in front of an audience and portray their beauty. For women, it shows openness to the point of rudeness," says Murad Sodani, the secular editor of the culture journal Al Shuara. "In spite of the openness of Ramallah, tradition doesn't allow it."

That isn't necessarily the rule across the Muslim world, as pageant winners from Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Turkey routinely participate in international competitions.

But in the Arab world, such contests are more rare. Only Egypt, Lebanon, and Mauritania send representatives to world pageants.