"An Invitation to Modesty and Beauty"
The veiled Bahreini girl, Wafaa Yaakoub, who is twenty-five years old is the winner of this year's "Ideal Girl of the Arab World " contest, competing against twenty other contestants who represented fifteen Arab states. The growing acceptance of such a pageant is marked by new entrants such as Saudi Arabia and Palestine who were represented this year for the first time.
Ms. Ya'qub, who is preparing for higher studies in the Faculty of Law at the University of Bahrein, was crowned during a large celebration that was held in a hotel on the Nile. Another Egyptian contestant, Shayma' Muhammad, won the title of the first maiden while the Lebanese contestant, Abir Liyus, won the second position.
The veil proved no barrier to winning
Fashioned out of solid gold with precious stones, the design of the tiara was inspired by Islamic art that included mini flags of the participating countries. In contrast to last year's pageant that did not include a single veiled participant, this year's event witnessed three veiled contestants; the other two from Kuwait and Morocco.
On hearing the results, Ms. Wafaa Yaakoub revealed to Qantara her deep confidence in winning the title despite the doubts some had. She had previously passed every stage of the competition from among twenty-five other Bahreini girls who had sought the nomination.
Wafaa Yaakoub added that if beauty had been the sole criterion she would not have considered participating. The veil, she said, is a part of her spirituality, culture and modernity and it endorses the standards that the pageant seeks to reflect. The veil does not hinder her from achieving anything a girl her own age would want, Ms. Ya'qub stated.
Defying the image of women as sexual objects
The concept of the Miss Arab World pageant was initiated by Hanan Nasr who is active in various areas relating to women issues as well as charity organizations dedicated to child welfare. According to Nasr, we live in an age that focuses on the female body at the expense of all else.
A pageant that emphasizes other factors, such as "the beauty of the mind" and personality, would encourage girls to move away from images of women as sexual objects and which is the focus of beauty pageants most people are familiar with.
Hanan Nasr adds that these kinds of beauty pageants are not appropriate for the Arab world in the sense that their criteria are deemed unacceptable by the standards of Arab culture or religion, such as parading in bathing suits and so on.
In seeking to express both culture and beauty, the aim of the event is to provide a positive image to the Arab world through a framework that conveys respect to traditions and Middle Eastern customs. The decision that every contestant should wear her national dress emphasizes this dimension of Arab tradition while setting a distance from its Western counterpart.
The invitation has been sent out to all the Arab embassies and International Youth Organizations requesting them, including the Saudi Arabian embassy, to nominate contestants and members to the Judges' panel.
Conditions of the pageant
The conditions mandate that the pageant's contestants be single, between the ages of 18 to 24, with a university degree and general knowledge, height should not exceed 167 cm, the maximum weight is limited to 50 kilos. Contestants should also be fluent in one foreign language, be an Arab national and completely untouched by cosmetic surgery.
The participants underwent various examinations in various fields such as protocol and general knowledge and were judged by a panel of leading Arab businesswomen, fashion designers, beauty experts and university professors.
Additional conditions include readiness to engage in charity work since the winners often spend the entire year campaigning for causes such as improving the condition of children with special needs in the Arab World as well as orphans and refugees. The prizes are gifts valued at around 15,000 dollars in the form of perfumes, cosmetics and travel vouchers.
Criticism from religious scholars
It was not long before dissenting voices were raised with a number of conservative religious scholars condemning the pageant by referring to it as "a new dimension to licentiousness". The scholars pointed out that the sponsors for this pageant, such as fashion houses and television stations, are the very same ones who endorse nude pageants that are rejected by religious law.
In changing the label and adding this new spin the organisers of the event are deluding the public, the religious pundits said. They maintained that the quality of modesty that is an eminent characteristic of a "good Muslim girl" by definition does not engage in seduction – and that by turning the veil into a fashion statement it is abused as a new method of seduction.
The religious scholars pointed out that in the end these "silly pageants" have no positive repercussions on our societies despite the glitz and that it is essentially a Western idea now sold to us in an Oriental and Islamic garb.
© Qantara 2007
Translated from the German by Mona Zaki