Back in 2003, Vida Samadzai (Vida Sam for short) shocked her native country by appearing in the Miss Earth beauty pageant in Manila wearing a little red two-piece swimsuit. The Taliban mullahs, the supreme court of the country and the Minister for Women's Affairs of Afghanistan condemned her, and large sections of the male-dominated Afghan society disowned her. But, Vida had made her point, earned a `beauty for a cause' title and grabbed global attention. Death threats followed.
By participating in the pageant, she believes that she sent out the message that Afghan women are talented, intelligent and beautiful. She also highlighted the violation of women's rights in her native country. Already a co-founder of the United States-based Afghan Women's Organisation, the then 23-year-old Kabuli girl had entered the pageant to highlight the organisation's cause. She was the first Afghan woman to have participated in an international beauty contest in three decades. At that time, Vida was a graduate student at California State University, Fullerton.
An American citizen (she went to the U.S. in 1996), Vida is now in Kochi to promote the February 17 Miss Kerala pageant.
"I am here to encourage Kerala girls to participate in the pageant," she told journalists on Tuesday. "It's fun." She advises young women to pursue their passions and dreams with determination.
She has been travelling to India frequently during the past eight months for a movie. She says Afghans have an abiding love for India. (Afghans love Hindi films so much that most Bollywood actors are household names in the country.)
In the U.S., Vida is a model, actress and a self-appointed cultural ambassador of Afghanistan. "I want to make a difference in the lives of my fellow Afghans and, more specifically, the women of Afghanistan," Vida says on her website. She raised funds for the Afghan children orphaned by American invasion and the years of civil war preceding it.
But Vida defends the American invasion. Asked how could she defend the invasion that has killed tens of thousands of Afghan people, she says that it has freed the country from the Taliban cruelties.
"The women can now go to school and work." However, she is critical of the American invasion of Iraq and the execution of Saddam Hussein.
She feels that Islam has been greatly misunderstood across the world.
"It's sad that Islam has been identified with terrorists. In spite of the Taliban, Islam was as nice as any other religion was."
Her website notes that, growing up in Kabul, she had seen very basic human rights of women being constantly violated. "As an Afghan woman I look at the problem not as religious fanaticism, but the supremacy of ignorance and lack of tolerance," the website adds.