The multi-tiered stage, strobe lights and theatrical smoke are all par for the course when it comes to beauty pageants, but once the contestants take their places, it becomes clear that this one is different.
The 20 finalists are certainly beautiful, but one wears glasses and another one has some fuzz on her upper lip. Many look heavier than your average stick-thin model. But it’s difficult to tell given that all are covered from top to toe in loosely fitting outfits that reveal only their shining faces, manicured hands and glittery stilettos.
This is the Miss Muslimah contest, a riposte to the Miss World pageant now on in Indonesia. Miss World has attracted vehement opposition from some Indonesian Islamic groups. They have been demanding its cancellation on the grounds of its alleged “un-Islamic” nature.
Though, the contest is going ahead, the protesters succeeded in persuading the government to order the entire pageant confined to the Hindu-majority island of Bali. Originally, the final was to be held in capital Jakarta, on the Muslim-dominated island of Java. Eka Shanthi, founder of the Miss Muslimah contest, says rather than protests and bans she believes holding an alternative contest for Muslim women that poses no contradiction between their religion and their participation, to be the correct way of countering Miss World.
The contestants are between 18 and 27 years old, come from six Muslim countries — Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Malaysia, Brunei and Iran.
To qualify, they must be proficient in reading the Koran and have some academic, sports and cultural achievements. They must wear a hijab in their daily lives and even submit an essay titled “My hijab experience”.
Ms. Eka was a successful television anchor in Indonesia, until she was forced to quit her job in 2006 after deciding to wear a hijab. But while some of the women participants have fought to wear a hijab instead of uncovering their hair, other contestants have fought to wear a hijab as a liberating alternative to the burqa. “There is no simple narrative of Islam and the hijab,” says Eka.
The contestants have spent the last 10 days in activities ranging from Koran recitation, to vocational courses in IT and learning the art of wearing make up correctly.
“Our women are sholeha [pious], smart, and stylish,” says Ms. Eka. “They are an answer to those who only equate Islam with poverty and terrorism.”
Twenty-three-year-old Evawani Efliza, an Indonesian contestant studying for a Psychology degree in Canada, says joining the contest has helped her to understand how to “better” her character and be “more sincere in her relationship with God.”
“I’ve learnt to have a positive attitude at all times and contribute as a Muslim woman to my country and my family.”
She says that while she’s not opposed to people who wish to participate in the Miss World contest, it might have been better not to hold it in Indonesia where the majority of people are Muslim and, therefore, do not hold with women exposing their skin.
In fact only a small section of Muslims has protested against holding the Miss World, with many others touting the benefits such an event bring to the country in the form of increased tourism revenue.
However, in deference to local sentiments, the swimsuit round that is usually de rigueur at the pageant — Miss World in fact began as a bikini contest in 1951— has been modified, so that contestants will dress modestly, in Balinese-style sarongs instead. Miss Muslimah, of course, eschews any exposure of skin. However, it is a study in learning how many different textures — gauzy, woven, satiny — and colours — mauve, cerulean, emerald green — headscarves can come in.
The final of Miss Muslimah was scheduled for Wednesday night in Jakarta. The winner was to be awarded a cash prize in addition to a trip to Makkah and India.
In India, the future Miss Muslimah will attend the Nirvanavan Foundations’ Art Mela for World Peace, which will raise money for the schooling of the children of women driven into prostitution, many of whom come from local Muslim communities.