Move over Miss World: A beauty contest for Muslim women

The World Muslimah Foundation, a Muslim women’s group, is holding a beauty contest in response to the Miss World competition currently taking place in Bali.

Dita Alangkara/AP
Obabiyi Aishah Ajibola of Nigeria drops to her knees upon being named World Muslimah 2013 during the third Annual Award of World Muslimah in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. The annual pageant, held exclusively for Muslim women, assessed not only contestants' appearance but also their piety and religious knowledge.

There was no shortage of sparkles, high heels, and sashes, and when Miss Nigeria was crowned the pageant winner she dropped to her knees and cried tears of happiness. But this was no ordinary pageant. This contest was for Muslims only, and the contestants wore headscarves and floor-sweeping gowns that covered their chests and shoulders.

On Wednesday the top 10 finalists for World Muslimah shared their thoughts on the importance of motherhood, the dangers of the Internet, and the value of Islamic finance. They were vying for the “crown of modesty,” a golden statue of a woman giving thanks to God and an all expenses paid trip to Mecca.

It’s the third year the event has taken place, but this time it’s happening at the same time and in the same country as the Miss World competition – a pageant that has raised angry protests from Islamic hardliners, who have called it pornographic and demanded it be stopped.

Organizers say World Muslimah is aimed at showcasing women who are smart, stylish, and display good Islamic morals. It’s billed as an antidote to the Miss World pageant, which is taking place this week just 730 miles away on the resort island of Bali.

“This is an international event to appreciate women who have talent, dedication, and a reputation in their communities for being young, but also giving back to others,” says Eka Shanti, the pageant’s founder.

She says the pageant is based around sholehah, an Islamic term meaning someone who is pious, has good morals, and observes Islamic rules and codes. She calls it a “formula,” for understanding the ideal woman, “regardless of your religion.”

It is not intended as a challenge or in opposition to Miss World, says Ms. Shanti, but as a way of expelling negative stereotypes about Muslim women.

“People think we are against Miss World,” she explained. “What we’re against is nudity. For the sake of education, I want to give another example.”

Protests against the Miss World competition began here back in June. In response, the London-based organization agreed to swap bikinis for one-piece swimsuits and more modest Balinese sarongs out of respect, they said, to local customs and values.

In recent weeks, the protests have heated up again, this time in opposition to a pageant that’s been labeled smut and an affront to Islamic morals.

Under pressure, the government requested that the Miss World event, parts of which were to be held outside Jakarta, be confined to Bali, which is majority Hindu. The event’s organizers have fumed, saying the change of plans was typical of a government that has too often capitulated to the demands of religious extremists.

Around 90 percent of Indonesia’s 250 million people are Muslim, making it home to the world’s largest Muslim population some of whom have become increasingly conservative in recent years. The most vocal, and sometimes violent, fringe has a reputation for taking a hard line against religious minorities and behavior it considers un-Islamic. What worries many here is that it’s this fringe to which the government is listening.

Shanti says the controversy is based on the “half-nudity,” but women’s rights groups say turning the issue into a moral one overlooks the real problem.

“These pageants put a standard on what beauty is,” says Andy Yentriyani, a chairwoman from Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women. Both Miss World and World Muslimah are commodifying beauty by promoting a kind of “ideal” woman.

Miss World, which began in 1951, has faced its share of controversy. In the 1970s and ‘80s feminist groups protested the bikini section, and it has been scrapped in previous competitions.

Islamic hardliners in Indonesia have also succeeded in sinking past events they deemed un-Islamic, including a Lady Gaga concert, which organizers cancelled due to security concerns.

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