Beauty and the Media Beast: the 2009 Miss Arab World Pageant

Let’s cut to the point: no matter how hard anyone tries to make it deep and philosophical, the word “beauty pageant” will always refer to looks. As variable and relative the definition of “beautiful” might be for a lot of people, some of those who work as beauticians and fashion experts put standards upon which beauty depends. This is applied in all kinds of beauty pageants, including the 2009 Miss Arab World pageant, a new pageant that is causing lots of controversy.

The first Miss Arab World Contest took place at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sharm el Sheikh July 26 – 29, 2009.  According to All Beirut News,

“The Miss Arab World pageant aims to be more inclusive by allowing veiled and non-veiled women to compete alongside without having to compromise their values for events like swimwear competitions. Instead, the contestants strut down the catwalk in their national costumes.”

Women no longer have to look, walk and dress like someone else from a culture that is not theirs. I want to honestly congratulate the organizers and the juries of this contest. They succeeded in breaking a Westernized “beauty code” normally used in beauty pageants. One big problem Arab women face is that they have limitations–both cultural and natural–to how close they look to white western women, on whom international beauty standards are often formed. This attempt to have their own version of a beauty pageant might seem bizarre to some people, but looking deeper into it, having their own pageants where they can appreciate their own values and feel good about themselves is a positive thing.

A shot from the 2009 Miss Arab World pageant. Image via Wikeez.

An image from the 2009 Miss Arab World pageant. Image via Wikeez.

Before getting excited, let me tell you about this year’s contest. On November 11, 2009, sixteen contestants (18-24 years) from all over the Arab countries were competing for the title. Mawadda Nour from Saudi Arabia won the title, and Jessy Zaher from Lebanon was first runner up. Right after the event was over, controversy began. Why? Because Ms. Nour is not thin.

According to critics, Nour does meet the “standard requirements of beauty pageant contestants”, which is code for “she’s not thin enough.” Mrs. Sawsan Al Sayed, the organizer of the event and the head of the jury panel, stated in an interview for Wikeez, “Not all the members of the jury panel agreed on Mawadda Nour”, but she doesn’t explain further. Hanan Nasr, the chief of the beauty pageant, says that “The main reason for which Nour has won the title was the fact the she is an example of the modest beautiful Arab intellectual girl who is beloved by all.”

Wikeez doesn’t believe that the contestants were “chosen based on their look, knowledge and education”:

“Knowledge and Education?! Well most of the participants were about 18 years old and though the questions asked by the jury were not that complicated the girls showed no knowledge whatsoever. So we are left with the “LOOK”. [sic]

Nasr states:

The beauty in this contest primarily refers to beauty in the character, spirit represented by a woman with Arab culture and elegance and also characterized by a sharp intelligence and agility, preserving her own name and her ancient Arab heritage so that it can change the distorted image promoted about some of the Arabs. [sic]

Women are always trapped between what they are and what is expected from everyone—even themselves. This year, the crowning of Mawadda Nour walks us one step forward toward closing this gap.

In his article about the contest, Musab al-Hilali, said that:

The irony and contrast came from the West-affected mentalities, who found it that the fact that the winner–according to them–does not have the standards and specifications of the beauty-queen stereotype.

The reason is of course a misunderstanding resulting from the philosophy that they do not know the Arab and Islamic purposes of this contest where concepts like committing to culture, love, and behaviors are the qualities that qualify contestant to win the title rather than dancing in evening dresses and bikinis, or body shapes and narrow waists.

Finally, there are people who actually believe that a woman doesn’t have to look like an exact copy of a famous actress/model to be beautiful! By believing in herself and being proud and consistent with her history and culture, a woman is actually beautiful. The concept of beauty is far deeper than the body mass index of a thin person and some measurements and scales.

Miss Arab World 2009, Mawadda Nour. Image via Wikeez.

Miss Arab World 2009, Mawadda Nour, with her mother. Image via Wikeez.

And this actually makes even more sense in Arab world, where women have their own scales and dimensions, imagine the kind of pressure so many women were being put under from themselves, their families and the whole community when they are supposed to look like women from totally different countries. That does not apply only to weight: skin color and clothes come to that as well. Many commercial campaigns play on this string: be thin, be white, and wear size 2. For a long time, many Arab women have troubles finding their own sizes in most of the big-named stores!

In the Miss Arab World contest, a woman is free to wear what she wants–veil or not. A woman can be proud of her background and express that pride by walking in her country’s traditional costume and represent the women from her country, and for all that she is beautiful!

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  • Yusra

    I like that this contest emphasized being proud of one’s own culture and not not imitating another. I don’t think that would have changed if a thin girl one. The national costume part replacing the bikini strut was genius. National costumes like tradition vary from region to region so showing them off is a tasteful and nonpolitical way to counter societies inclination to homogenize Arabs. Also, while wearing a bikini is not an an Arab tradition, I don’t think the pressure comes from looking “like women from totally different countries” as it does looking like other Arab women on say LBC.

  • camila

    “In the Miss Arab World contest, a woman is free to wear what she wants–veil or not. ”

    so, would a woman have been allowed to wear a bikini–if she wanted to? Just curious if there were rules against it or if women really did have the choice.

    I find such a contest disappointing, to be honest. The “allowances” for non-western sensibilities amount to mere tinkering; we are still confronted with a sexist paradigm which ultimately values women for everything but their intellect. sigh.

  • samar

    Who is Lying Mawadda Nour Or The 15 Participants? check this link to know more:

  • Zaufishan

    In response as a Muslim woman: Strip away the outward justifications for the sincerity of such a pageant and the basic objectifying of women is still the foundation of any ‘beauty pageant’. Objectification is always objectionable in a world of right and wrong.

    But as we are all too grey, I wonder if the contestants were challenged on their mental ability? Was there a talent round?

    In second to Camila – I’m also disappointed in this for the Arab world missing an opportunity: can they only ‘go with the flow’? Wearing national costumes does not change the assimilation.

    Looking forward to the Miss Intellect Pageant insha’Allah.

  • Kate

    i appreciate the whole Miss Intellect Pageant and beauty comes from within and all these notions. But Miss Arab was not the case it was a beauty pageant what i don’t appreciate is that everyone is trying to find a way out. It is a beauty Pageant based on the outer look!! If Mawadda was crowned based on her education and intellect than it is fine but she knows very well that it was a beauty pageant and so did the other girls so she cant change the whole concept now by saying beauty comes from within plus u can be the perfect miss inside and out! lets all try it shall we???

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • camila

    Thinking more about this makes me more irritated: the problem is with the notion of “pageant” itself, which must by definition be based on the visual appearance of women. The twist, in this case, is the emphasis on “traditional costume” which is a superficial adjustment of a fundamentally demeaning, objectifying exercise.

    Instead of measuring a woman’s worth or success in these silly, infantilising contests, we should be promoting their advancement in the workplace, in politics, and accomplishments in the academy. That is particularly important in a patriarchal society that seeks to define women by their domestic (and therefore private and invisible) role. This stupid pageant accomplishes ZERO in that regard, and merely reinforces the erroneous idea that women must strive most of all to satisfy the male gaze. Is that not one of the main criticisms that the Arab world has of western society?? Bleugh.

  • Eman Hashim

    I can see that most if not all the comments are concerned with the concept of “beauty pageant” and discussing it.
    As much as it is related, but it is a bit diverted, the post was not defending beauty pageant or discussing them at all!
    It is about the “Arabic” version and the standards issue
    so even if it is only dealing with the looks, who said one look is beauty and anything else is ugly?
    This is what the post is all about.