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.

Debbie Hill/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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.

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

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.

The Palestinians themselves are divided between the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement, and the West Bank, which is run by the Western-oriented Palestinian Authority. But even the secular government run by PA President Mahmoud Abbas is sensitive to the criticism of religious and cultural conservatives.

Initially, Youssef got complaints about the timing: the original date of Dec. 26 for the finale was considered insensitive because it fell on the eve of the anniversary of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. Then government officials said that Youssef had not obtained the proper license.

The fact that the contest was dubbed "Miss Palestine" – with connotations of a national ambassador of sorts – raised the stakes for the PA. If the pageant is approved, the PA is likely to expose itself to criticism from Hamas, which has pushed through laws in Gaza forcing women to wear modest dress in public.

"It will embarrass the Palestinian Authority if it is not done well,'' says Ahmed al-Khatib, the director of public affairs for the government's regional Ramallah governorate.

One prospective pageant competitor, Risette Hananiyeh, says the contest would provide an international stage to showcase Palestinian culture. Wearing a jacket with a fur collar, the psychologist says she sees the job of a Miss Palestine as "helping people in Gaza and to help people in [refugee] camps."

Youssef says the project has been in limbo for more than a month as her requests for sponsorship from the Tourism Ministry go unanswered. She has approached the project with the same pluck she has needed as a divorced woman to strike out on her own in a traditional society while taking care of five children and running a small business.

"I am not ashamed of myself," she says. "This is not something bad for the Palestinians, this is something that will teach the world around us that we are a normal society."

Palestinian tourism minister Kuloud Daibes said in a phone interview that officials are still deciding whether to sponsor the beauty contest, but that she is not opposed to the notion of a pageant.

"If it is designed in a way it could be accepted by the community, I don't think it would be a problem," she said. "Maybe most of us think that we have other concerns and priorities, but [a pageant] is a sign of looking for another future."

In the streets of downtown Ramallah, a group of college students wearing makeup and head scarves discussed whether the beauty contest was in keeping with Islamic customs.

"I don't think it's good in a Muslim country. It's going to be an unsuccessful experiment," says Rawan Masharka. "Beauty is something that must be kept in a relationship between a man and woman, and when you are married only."

But Ghadeer Abu Rjealeh disagreed. "I think it will strengthen Palestinian girls," she said. "I hope that one day Miss Universe will be from Palestine."

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