A Principled Pageant?: Saudi Arabia’s Miss Beautiful Morals

News media reported at the beginning of the month that Saudi Arabia will hold its first beauty pageant, now in its second year. This pageant, unlike the standard pageants that feature contestants in various outfits and judge them on their appearance, is looking for “Miss Beautiful Morals.” The contest, open to women ages 15 to 25, will not take physical appearance into account but judge contestants on their “inner beauty,” based on interactions with their mothers. The 10-week contest is in its third week.

The widely reprinted Associated Press report, by Donna Abu-Nasr, described the contest as “the latest example of conservative Muslims co-opting Western-style formats to spread their message in the face of the onslaught of foreign influences.”

Khadra al-Mubarak, the pageant's founder. Image via AP Photo/Nissreen Aldar

Khadra al-Mubarak, the pageant's founder. Image via AP Photo/Nissreen Aldar

The AP story, like other coverage, accompanied its article with photos of contest founder Khadra al-Mubarak (shown left). Wearing niqab and glasses, al-Mubarak seems to serve only the purpose of illustrating a physical contrast with the standard image of beauty contests. In the main AP photo, al-Mubarak is shown in an active pose: sharing contest brochures in her office. The photo accompanying a Times Online story on the contest shows only her eyes, behind glasses, and the clear cut of the niqab around them. What purpose does this photo serve, but to say, “Look what women wear in Saudi Arabia?” After all, al-Mubarak herself is not a contestant in the contest.

Coverage of the story rushed to point out the precedent the contest sets as the “first beauty contest” in Saudi Arabia. I wonder why there has been so much coverage of the event in what is its second year. It seems that media have only now picked up on the story. On Google News, I can find no coverage of the contest in 2008, when it actually began.

The AP and Times Online pointed out that while Saudi Arabia had no beauty contest for women before the premier of “Miss Beautiful Morals” it did have beauty contests for goats, sheep and camels! An old AP story covering such contests (and written, incidentally, by the same Donna Abu-Nasr as the recent “Miss Beautiful Morals” story) seems to hint at inappropriate interest in the animals, quoting men admiring the animals’ body parts. But really, these contests don’t seem so different than those one would find at a county fair or a cat or dog show. And I haven’t heard anyone insinuate bestiality about those.

When the animal “beauty contests” are brought up, it is to imply what an improvement the “Miss Beautiful Morals” contest is. The AP story describes nearby Lebanon’s beauty contests as “dazzling.” James Hider of the Times Online says outright, “While hardly racy stuff, the girls’ contest is a marked improvement on the only other previous pageants allowed in the kingdom, which were for goats, sheep and camels, and aimed at encouraging livestock breeding” (emphasis mine).

This comment by the Times closely follows the standard description of Saudi treatment of women that seems to appear by default in any article about Saudi Arabia. It offers a list of information about women in Saudi Arabia, from detailing the horrific incident in which schoolgirls, considered “indecent” for their lack of hijab and abaya, were prevented from leaving a burning building, to the fact women are not allowed to drive, to mention of the annual anti-Valentine’s Day crackdowns on red roses and pet-walking. The Times’ comment that the beauty contest is a “marked improvement” despite not being “racy stuff” implies that the best situation for women is a sexualized one. Hmm.

Not all coverage of the contest views its lack of “racy stuff” as negative. Pastor and columnist for the Pueblo Chieftain Alex Howard praises the contest: “They don’t even have to parade around in bikinis or evening gowns. Now there’s an idea!” Howard, writing from a Christian perspective, notes that beauty contests promote idolatry more than divine character and that striving for attractiveness “belies our real values.” Commentary at MuslimMatters praised the contest for similar reasons, describing the contest as a “welcome change from the norm [...] one that can show to the world what the true merit of a woman should be.”

Commentary from the Wall Street Journal took a position somewhat in the middle. While writer Bari Weiss offers some critique of the bikini contest in traditional beauty contests, she also offers the appearance-based contests some praise for allowing women to use their beauty to further their goals. She quotes an Iranian-Canadian beauty contestant who has used her title to advocate against child executions in Iran. Weiss decides that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with beauty contests, because they can offer women a way to “get what they want,” whether that’s a college education or visibility for causes they care about. She concludes, “Would that women could have the same choice in Riyadh.” What Weiss fails to realize is that the Saudi contest also offers some fame and money to its winners, with which they can do what they will. It just determines its winners by different criteria. There’s nothing “better” about having appearance be a significant determining factor. One could argue that women outside Saudi Arabia lack “the choice” to participate in a beauty contest that does not consider their looks.

Both the AP and Times note that since the contest will not be televised and will involve only female judges, contests will be allowed to “take off the veils and black abayas that cover Saudi women from head to toe,” in the words of the Times story. I’m not sure why this note is necessary, if only to drill in the message, “Saudi women must completely cover their bodies” — if you didn’t get already that from the accompanying photos. Some articles note that there will be no bikini contest. You think?

A report from the Korean site dongA notes, without any irony, “Plump women will also compete.” I suppose this fact was taken from the lead of the AP story, which describes “unlikely beauty queen hopeful” Sukaina al-Zayer, who is “a little on the plump side.” But the fact that this is brought up in the article as a feature of the contest should say something about beauty contests in general.

I haven’t noticed any commentary on the contest’s judging criteria. The coverage notes that the contestants will take classes and quizzes on “Islamic values” and how to respect their mothers. But concepts like “respect” and “Islamic values” are a little vague. How exactly will the contestants be judged on these? “Respect,” after all, is subjective; it can’t be calculated by a point system. And are contestants required to have a living mother? Might someone without one or both parents substitute other relatives?

Furthermore, it seems a bit counterintuitive to encourage “beautiful morals” through competition for a monetary prize. The winner of the contest will take home $2,600, and runners-up each get $1,300. But I haven’t seen any criticism of the contest on this point.

Like traditional beauty contests, “Miss Beautiful Morals” is open to a limited demographic. In this case, it is women between 15 and 25. (Does this include, I wonder, married women, a demographic traditional beauty contests exclude?) Sadaf Farooqi at MuslimMatters questions the age limit (“Can a woman possessing beautiful morals not be past 25?”). Farooqi also wonders whether the contest is open to non-Saudis. But I haven’t seen any commentary on the fact the contest is only open to women. I recognize that the contest is meant to be a response to contests like “Miss World” and “Miss Universe,” but I can’t see any reason to not have an equivalent contest for men. It seems a related jump from judging women for their appearance to judging them for their morality (indeed, the two are often related in people’s minds). But a contest to judge men on their perceived morality? The fact that this option hasn’t been brought up in any of the commentary indicates a double standard: It’s appropriate to judge women (whether on appearance or morals), but it’s not even a possibility to judge men.

The contest is set to end in mid-July. It’ll be interesting to see what coverage, if any, the contest gets once the contest crowns one woman “Miss Beautiful Morals.”

  • Meg

    As someone who grew up in rural America, I am interested by the mention of “animal beauty pageants.” The tone seems to be, “look at what those crazy Saudis are doing; they’re so backwards.” But where I grew up, and in thousands of communities across America, “animal beauty pageants” are common. Kids usually raise an animal all year and take it to the county fair to show it. The best animals get a prize. Given that many of those kids will grow up to own the family farm, it’s great practice.

  • http://nataliaantonova.wordpress.com/ Natalia Antonova

    Thanks for this. I think that the particularly intense obsession with the Saudi abaya stems from the fact that it is required outdoors. Any time that something is mandated, people are wont to zero in on it (honestly, I think that part of the reason that boobs are so IMPORTANT to everyone, aside from various evolutionary arguments, has to do with the fact that we’re supposed to cover them up when we go outside). There’s a focus on the public and the private here. Well, that, and all the usual Orientalist bugaboo the media engages in.

    I too was taken aback by the suggestion of bestiality, although I take a minor issue with the following point:

    But really, these contests don’t seem so different than those one would find at a county fair or a cat or dog show. And I haven’t heard anyone insinuate bestiality about those.

    If you’re living out in the farm country, people naturally tend to assume that you must love your sheep a little too much. I remember being at a fair in North Carolina a few years ago, andoverhearing some of the comments being made by clueless city folk about the proud farmers and their prize cows made me want to retch. I think it can be a class issue – farmers work hard and get their hands dirty, so they must be dirty on the inside as well.

  • http://www.mec.utah.edu/outreach Deborah Dilley

    This is a wonderful post. I have a question for you. I train teachers on how to teach about Middle East issues, would you mind if I made copies of this post for a workshop that we are doing?

  • Melinda

    @ Meg
    Yeah, that was my reaction too: “What’s weird about that?” I assumed people would have at least some familiarity with country fairs — “Charlotte’s Web” at least, anyone?

    @ Natalia
    Thanks for the correction. I wasn’t aware that urban people make those kinds of suggestions about farmers and their animals, ugh. Great point about the class issue.

    @ Deborah
    Thanks, and I’m glad you find it useful! I’ll check in with Fatemeh about copies and get back to you.

  • RCHOUDH

    Interesting post. I find it fascinating how Muslims are discovering new ways of propagating the faith among fellow Muslims through different types of media and venues traditionally associated with the West. Besides this contest, you have Egyptian imams who work as talk show hosts, an American Idol inspired an-nasheed contest currently in the works, and even Barbie like dolls dressed in hijab on sale throughout the Middle East! It would reallly worth it for someone to research about the impact such Western inspired/Islamic flavored media, forums, and venues have upon the socieities they hope to influence.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    Does anyone else find these pageants just as offensive as the western, beauty ones? They’re still getting a bunch of women together and (by mostly men) judging them, not unlike cattle or sheep.

    Why are there never men’s pageants? I’d like to see a ‘best husband contest’, based on devotion, looks, cooking skills, knowledge of female anatomy, sense of humor and charm. I’d watch that shit.

  • http://www.themuslimah.com Umm Layth

    as salamu ‘alaykum

    Principled? Is showing off part of righteousness? Oh wait, they are only judging based on their treatment to their mothers (and dress, of course). It sounds ridiculous. It IS ridiculous. At least they are covered, though! Phew!

    This isn’t a step above these other pageants on the moral scale. At least in other pageants you get the reality. You are being judged by beauty, confidence, and how well you can answer questions on the spot. It’s funny that we are after so much praise. Give them best writer and respect them for their writing, but morals? Ya Allah! OH, and there is a prize. Woo hoo!

    Pardon the sarcasm. :)

  • RCHOUDH

    @ Umm Layth

    You’re right it is wrong for them to judge someone based on morality (something only Allah can do really). Your idea of a writing contest sounds better BTW. This pageant is just the latest evidence for how widespread Western cultural influence is in shaping and modifying various other cultures around the world. The only difference is that this pageant is not an exact copy of Western style beauty pageants, but instead attempts to apply an “Islamic flavor” to it. It’s similar to the Fulla doll here in the Middle East, which is just a brunette Barbie in hijab. On the one hand I can understand why Muslim producers of these products and venues may be doing this, which is to offset the powerful influence of Western culture with something of their own. On the other hand I wish we Muslims could be more creative in finding ways to attract the youth to Islam, that doesn’t lead us to commit haraam in the process. I mean we all know dollmaking is haraam as is a pageant that judges someone based on their “morals”. In the meantime again I’d really be interested in learning about how effective these current methods are in attracting the youth to Islam.

  • Zahra

    This is just a stellar take-down of the so many things wrong with the coverage of this pageant. I particularly love the point that no one questions the exclusion of men from the pageant!

    Rochelle, I would totally watch the Best Husband Contest with you, and I’m not even in the market for one!

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