The controversy over the bikini segment of the 2013 Miss World pageant, taking place this September in Indonesia, made me question: do beauty pageants exist in the Muslim world? The idea of a beauty pageant seems to contrast 100% with the as-interpreted-through-social-custom Islam that is the norm in most Middle Eastern countries (heck, it even seems out of sorts when compared to traditional Christian values!) that the possibility seemed unlikely, until I remembered that superstar Haifa Wehbe got her start as a beauty queen in Lebanon.
Beauty pageants do take place in the greater Middle East, although they vary from country to country. Local beauty pageants are plentiful in Lebanon and Morocco as well as, surprisingly, Algeria (all former colonies of France, I noticed) but are obviously non-existent in Saudi Arabia and Iran, although Saudi Arabia does have it’s own peculiar brand of ‘beauty pageant,’ the Miss Congeniality pageant (est. 2009) where women’s morals and personalities are judged ‘most beautiful’ instead of their bodies. I actually admire the meaning behind this pageant, although the fact that Saudi women aren’t allowed to attend physical beauty pageants, nor show off their looks at all, detracts greatly from its appeal.
Important to note here is that although countries like Saudi Arabia do not have traditional beauty pageants, they do send delegates to Miss Arab World, where participants wear traditional dress and even hijab. Countries that have never held a beauty pageant (such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, UAE and Kuwait) or sent a model abroad to an international competition (here Afghanistan is exempt!) do in fact participate in Miss Arab World. Here, we’ll look at beauty pageants by country; in the following post we’ll look at regional/international beauty pageants and Arab participation in these.
Lebanon is the Queen of Beauty Pageants among nations. Not only is the country the only Middle Eastern nation to continuously nominate contestants to international organizations, the country has a plethora of pageant contests. Queen Haifa is noted to have won the title of Miss SOUTH LEBANON; Reigning over them all is the Miss Lebanon pageant, held since 1952, which has produced international pageant winners and famous icons alike. Speared by Antoine Maksoud, the pageant’s official website lists queens all the way back to 1971. Beauty maven (here in the United States!) Sonia Fares won back in 1967; actress and do-gooder Nadine Welson Njeim won in 2007. The show, which airs on LBC (Lebanon Broadcasting Corp) is a big affair hosted by a lot of star power: in 2012 superstar singer Nancy Agram and 1970 Miss Lebanon (and 1971 Miss Universe!) Georgina Rizk were among the judges.
Lebanon also boasts the Miss Model contest (since the 1990s at least); a Mrs. Lebanon pageant since at least 2000 (you know, for those who are older than 20 years) and a Miss Teen pageant since the early 2000’s.
And, lest the men feel left out, Lebanon also has a Mr. Lebanon pageant as well as a Mr. Teen! The Mr. Lebanon event is conducted similarly to a female pageant (Haifa Wehbe hosted/preformed at the 2012 event) and has been forwarding its winners since it began in 1995 to international competitions with great success.
Miss Maroc, the national pageant, has been hosted since 1989, according to its official website, however I believe the pageant in some form or other dates back at least to the 1960s, since Morocco then submitted contestants to the Miss World pageants. The 2012 Miss Maroc was held in conjunction with Night Star Maroc at a grand hotel in El Jadida. Miss Maroc 2012 was Sara Mouaatamid, a 19-year old Casablancan girl studying at a business school who was interviewed by the French press.
Miss Morocco wins several prizes, including a luxury car, but she also has to devote time to a humanitarian cause, which isn’t usually the case in other Arab beauty pageants: most of the time, the contestants are simply judged n their beauty, are crowned queen and that is that.
Morocco has come under fire in recent years for allowing these “slavery marketplaces” (as Islamic conservatives call beauty pageants) to continue, as an Al-Arabiya article reports. The Miss Morocco pageant has of 2012 banned the swimsuit portion of the contest; participants may not wear wigs, colored contacts or have body piercings (besides ear piercings) or tattoos. Natural beauty, clearly, is en vogue-or someone is trying to please the Islamic conservatives…
During the annual Fete des Cerises in Sefrou, which has taken place for the past 93 (!) years and celebrates cherries, a Miss Cerise (Miss Cherry) is chosen. Fidae Doum Gherdi was chosen for the 2013 celebration. Contestants walk down an outdoor runway lined with palms, first in everyday clothes (age doesn’t seem to be of importance) with a marching band behind them and then during a night event dressed in traditional Moroccan garb
Morocco is also home to the Miss Lalati Pageant, hosted by Lalati.ma, a French-language Moroccan woman’s website; voters text in who they want to win. It also hosts Elite Model Look Morocco, the Elite Modeling Agency’s international search for the next top model; the winner goes on to compete in the world competition.
Algeria doesn’t come up often in my readings on the Middle East, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the country loves beauty pageants! The pageants are often conducted in French, with runner-ups labeled dauphines; contestants wear exclusive French designs, both gowns and bikinis. There’s Miss Globe Algeria, whose winner goes on to international pageants; Sarah Tarchid was the 2012 winner.
The Miss University Algeria is organized by a national magazine, Dzeriet, and the Algerian university school system.
The Miss Algeria Pageant, started in 1996 by Cheradi Hamdad, shut down after his death in 2003 but was resstablished this year by his son Faycal Hamdad, with the new Queen being chosen on june 21st in the city of Oran. 19-year old Rym Amari was the winner.
The Elite Modeling Agency Elite Look search takes place in Algeria as well, not just in Morocco, with searches in several cities including Oran and Tlemclen.
Tunisia has hosted a Miss Tunisie pageant since the 1950s. The event is well organized and documented: there’s an official website en francais, and businesses (such as Tunis Air) and the Tunisian tourism department (TEJ) sponsor the event, which has been organized by Aïda Antar since 1995. Although it took a backseat during the Tunisian revolution, the pageant returned for the 2013 season, with 22-year old Heba Talmoudi winning the crown. She will be the first Tunisian to compete in the Miss World pageant since 1978! Seyf Dean Laouiti, a Taiwanese-Tunisian designer, designed the slinky costumes for the show, which are certainly only meant for the tall and skinny: the 2014 application on the Miss Tunisie website does not allow one to select a height under 1meter 70 cm!
It is encouraging that the show has gone on, despite Tunisia’s revolution and the increasing domination of islamist party Ennahda; many felt that the pageant was “un-Islamic,” but this former French colony is showing that it stands by its passion for la mode et la beaute.
Tunisia also boasts a local pageant which celebrates both female and male beauty! Unlike Egypt and Lebanon, which have separate male beauty contests, the Miss/Mr Carthage Pageant showcases both men and women together and chooses the winners. Contestants slink down a runway together and even preform short and simple dance routines together (it appears they are partnered up). The pageant is conducted in French and debuted this year for the first time; an awesome video I found on Youtube has the 2013 contestants simply dressed in jeans and introducing themselves to a camera in French (one candidate is deaf and uses sign language, which was nice to see).
It should come as no surprise that the media capital of the Middle East is a longtime fan of pageants; the Miss Egypt pageant has been around since 1929! Finding information about the various pageants from a more “official” source was rather difficult, but apparently there is a Miss Egypt as well as a Miss Egypt World pageant, or perhaps both girls are selected from the same pageant; I’m not sure. The last girls apparently to win were Donia Hamed for Miss Egypt (also deemed ‘Miss Egypt Universe’) who competes in the Universe pageant; and Sara El Khouly (who is actually half-Croatian) for Miss Egypt World (who competed in World) in 2010, before the Egyptian Revolution. Despite the suspension of the Miss Egypt pageant, Egypt continues to participate in the Miss Arab World pageant, as contestant Rufan Yusef placed in the 2012 pageant (see my second post).
There is also a Miss Teen Egypt, whose origins and scope are unclear; the only information I can find about it dates from 2010. Half-Egyptian, half-Montenegran Tara Emad won in 2010 and has since modeled for prestigious brands including Versace, Polo, Nike and Coca cola. Indeed, Egyptian beauty queens have often gone onto international pageant success as well as national success in different domains: famed feminist Doria Shafik took part in the 1935 pageant in Alexandria, becoming the first Muslim woman in Egypt (and probably the world) to enter a beauty pageant. She placed second. International superstar chanteuse Dalida, who reigned supreme in the late 1950s-1970s, was crowned a Queen in the 1954 pageant.
The pageant has been rebranded as Pantene Miss Egypt as the Pantene beauty company has taken it over, although when exactly the takeover occured varies; the Miss Egypt Wikipedia article cites Pantene’s involvement starting in the 1980s but an Al-Ahram article seems to suggest that the involvement was new. Nevertheless, the pageant is a glitzy affair, with superstars like Syrian crooner Samo Zain preforming (in 2004) and hosting and judges hailing from both international pageants and beauty companies including Christian Dior (again, at the 2004 event).
A Miss Hurghada pageant has been established in the Red Sea resort town as of 2013 in the hopes of boosting tourism to the town, which is popular with Europeans. The event took place at the Calypso Club. The pageant, however, is not limited to Egyptian girls: most of the contestants were blonde and foreign, and a Russian woman won the competition.
Like Lebanon, Miss Egypt has a male counterpart, Mr. Egypt! The pageant started in 2006, with Ibrahim Abdel Gawad crowned the first ‘Mr;’ contestants, such as hottie Amr Samaha at left, compete internationally.
After reading Annick Cojean’s horrid recounting of Mouammar Gaddhafi’s sex harem in Les Proies dans le harem de Gaddhafi, I am not shocked that Libya has hosted a beauty pageant before. Miss Net World, however, was used as a political tool, not as a method to empower young women or even promote beauty (I wouldn’t be surprised if Gaddhafi had sexual relations with at least one contestant). This one-time event, which took place in 2002, included not just Libyans but also international contestants; a British woman named Lucy Layton won the pageant. Omar Harfouche, the organizer, created the pageant’s slogan: “Beauty will save the world,” which, coming from an Arab country where most women wear hijab, sounds a bit too ironic, since the point of hijab is to hide one’s beauty.
**”Fun” fact: those Gaddhafi-homage t-shirts were designed by Roberto Cavalli. I don’t know what he was thinking….
Finding information on Jordanian beauty pageants was nearly impossible, even with Google Translate translating pages that I had found in Arabic thanks to-what else?-Google Translate’s translation of the words ‘Jordanian beauty pageant’ into Arabic. The result? Jordan has hosted a beauty pageant before: Pepsi Co. organized the Diet Pepsi Miss Jordan 2010 contest, held in Amman; contestants were voted for via Facebook. Rand Al-Majali was crowned the winner. Alas, it appears that this was a one-time thing but it nevertheless gave Jordanian girls a chance to express themselves in a different way.
I was completely shocked to find out that Bahrain does host a beauty pageant of sorts: Bahrain’s Top Model! It been running as a roughly 6-month TV show, culminating in a finale, for the past 5 or so years now! A first among Gulf Countries or the GCC, as these oil-rich kingdoms are known. FACT magazine seems to be the chief co-sponsor of the program, which may be conducted in English (the live finale show is preformed thus, in any case). The 2012 finale was held at a luxury venue with sea views that rivaled any Western club; Romanian DJ Claudia Cazacu and vocalist Peyton both preformed. A Top Female and a Top Male model were chosen (or ‘king and queen’), an especially daring choice for a Gulf Country! Pauline Castro was the 2012 winner. And although sashes and crowns aren’t given out, winners still receive flowers and gifts!
Knockout beauty Shaila Sabt, who won in 2010 and has now been nominated for Miss Universe 2013 at 23-years old, seems to have created quite a spark in the Arab world. She was recently quoted by the Saudi Gazette as stating that she would like to marry Portugeuse footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and that“I’ve no objection to becoming his second wife, but my only condition is that he has to embrace Islam.” Well, I’m not exactly sure if that was an empowering message for Arab females! I can also imagine that it sparked ire among Conservatives who felt that she might have seemed flippant in her ‘condition,’ since Muslim women are not supposed to marry non-Muslim men.
Iraq has a long history of beauty pageants dating back to 1947, when Renee Dagnoor, a Jewish Iraqi, was crowned what was then called the Miss Baghdad pageant. When America invaded Iraq the beauty pageants were put on hold, but even though they restarted shortly the concept of beauty pageants had taken a beating in the following years, with Islamist hardliners condemning the pageants. Iraq reentered the world of beauty pageants after the downfall of Saddam Hussein with a very hush-hush, underground pageant in 2006. The original winner, Tamar Goregian, backed out, as did the the two runner-ups, because of death threats, leaving Iraqi Christian Silva Shakakian with the crown. It was unfortunate that Goregian didn’t keep the crown, because The Telegraph UK attributes her to a lovely quote: “The power of beauty surpasses the ugly face of politics and greed.”
I’m not sure if there was a Miss Iraq pageant in 2012, since I can’t seem to find any info beyond a Safa Makram, who wears a ‘Miss Iraq’ sash although I am not sure if she only competed in the Miss Arab World pageant. Anat Sassoon, who seemed to be based in Dubai and not Iraq, was crowned the winner in 2011.
The Miss Baghdad pageant as a separate entity was resurrected in 2007 after disappearing in the 1980s; Zheena Khattab was the 2010 winner, according to Radio Free Europe. Contestants wear ordinary clothes (some girls even wear head scarves) and are introduced in front of a casual setting which includes their families.
The Miss Kurdistan pageant, established in 2012, promotes intense Kurdish pride. 18-year old Shene Aziz Ako from Sulaimaniyah was crowned the first-ever winner at the Rotana Hotel in Erbil, Iraq by a star-studded panel of judges which included actor Yusef al-Khal, singer Dina Hayek (she’s on my ipod), plastic surgeon Nader Saab, former Kurdistan parliament member Shokriyah Rasoo and beauty expert Farhad Birbal. Bikinis were not involved.
I was unable to find much information on pageant history in Syria. On an international scale Syria did appear to send a delegate to the Miss World pageant back in the 1960s and had a contestant ready for the Miss Universe pageant in the latr 1950s, but recent pageant involvement is limited to the Miss Arab World pageant (see next pageant post).
That being said, I did find this photo of a supposed Miss Syria 1952 as well as Miss Syrie 1953. Therefore, one can assume that Syria had pageants, although most likely not anytime recent.
Up until the 1979 Revolution, Iran boasted a national beauty pageant (est. 1965) created and supported by Shah Pahlavi’s regime. The Miss Iran pageant was a widely reported, glamorous affair which was often held in the Teheran Hilton Hotel infront of hundreds of people. The winner-as well as other beautiful women-were often sent on to international pageants. Unfortunately, beauty pageants no longer exist in this theocracy.
There were also various local pageants, including the Dokhtar-e Khoshfekr Iran pageant started by the weekly paper Ettela’at Banovan, and the Simin Amir Nazmi Afshar beauty pageant.
In January 2012 a Facebook page “Hot or Not?” (Daaf and Paaf) run by four Iranian administrators, in which Iranians posted photos of themselves for people to rate, was shut down by the state police. Although it was in no way like a real beauty pageant, it showed that Iranians are still piqued by the idea of rating attractiveness.
4. Miss Lebanon FB page
7. http://books.google.com/books?id=qGy0OIUH2RkC&q=pulchritude#v=onepage&q=pageant&f=false Doria Shafik Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart by Cynthia Nelson pg. 60, 61, 64
14. 17. http://www.misslebanon.org/
16. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r03j8DqjMZc tunisia
17. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPFT-a9nFZA tunisia
18. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VozxB70SAuo tunisia
23. http://www.lalati.ma/fr/miss-lalati maroc
43. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEbgH4cqiUw bahrain
48. http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/10/10/242959.html Saudi moral pageant
49. https://www.facebook.com/notes/%D9%83%D9%8A-%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%86%D8%B3%D9%89-%D9%83%D9%8A%D9%81-%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7/%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%B3%D8%A9-%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%84%D9%83%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%AC%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7-1952/519714814732226 syria