Budding Bedfellows: Islamists and Feminists against Beauty Pageants

This last week has seen protests in Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya and Jogjakarta over the Miss World 2013 beauty pageant to be held in the next few weeks. Recently, I wrote a post about a similar debate in Malaysia where their Muslim participants were eventually dropped. The Miss World 2013 protests numbered in the thousands and were made up of members of small Islamist organizations such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front or FPI)  on the island of Java, and Muslimah Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (MHTI) in Sumatra. The protesters were described as ‘conservatives’ and ‘Muslim hardliners’ (here and here).

‘Miss World is not of our culture’ and ‘Miss World destroys women’s character’. Source: Demotix.

The main reasons given for rejecting the beauty pageant, as expressed by the Majlis Ulema Indonesia (Indonesian Ulama Council or MUI) was that it was not in line with ‘Eastern’ culture:

“Muslims should protest strongly against this event, especially as it is linked with the self-worth of the Muslim community and our Eastern culture.”

Similarly, the spokesperson of MHTI, Honriani Nasution, used the protest as an opportunity to push for Islamic law:

“At the North Sumatra governor’s office, we sent a delegation to convey our opposition to the organization of the 2013 Miss World and other similar contests and urged the government to immediately implement Islamic law because only under Islamic values are women honored deeply.”

Miss World = A Cultural Liberalization Campaign’. Source: The State

I did not find it surprising that the pageant was constructed as a ‘liberal Western’ import and that opposition to it should come in the form of supporting ‘conservative Eastern’ culture. However, I was  interested in the fact that most of the pictures featured women. I was also interested that some placards appeared to indicate other reasons for being against the pageant, such as anti-corporation or anti-capitalism, and the objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies.

Poster suggesting that participants are being ridiculed, with the hashtag #RejectMissWorld. Source: The Wall Street Journal

These other reasons for opposing pageants seemed to make more sense, especially since it had already been confirmed by the chairwoman of the Miss World Organization, Julia Morley, that there would be no bikinis in the swimsuit segment; instead, participants would wear a one-piece suit and a showcase of sarongs.

While browsing the hashtag #RejectMissWorld on Twitter, I came across several tweets that highlighted a 2011 protest in London by the London Feminist Network at the 60th anniversary of Miss World. The founder of the feminist organization UK Feminista, Kat Banyard, made an argument against Miss World that similarly pitted the ‘backwards’ culture of female objectification with ‘modern Britain’:

 “We’re here because Miss World has absolutely no place in a world that treats women and men equally. It perpetuates the beauty myth [and] indoctrinates people across the world with its toxic ideals, We know that [those ideals] have a very harmful effect.”

This is essentially the same argument as the ‘Muslim hardliners’ in Indonesia. While the conservative Muslims point towards the superiority of Islamic values and Islamic law in deeply honouring women (but not necessarily considering them as being on equal footing to men in all aspects),  secular feminists point to the notion of the modern, egalitarian nation-state that rejects female objectification (but not necessarily acknowledging or appreciating any material or spiritual differences between sexes).

It is indeed fascinating to see two groups who would hardly consider each other allies, or work together in solidarity, somehow agree that Miss World (and perhaps beauty pageants that show women’s bodies in general) is an event worth protesting against.

Women that identify themselves as Muslim feminists,such as Asma Lamrabet and Ziba Mir Hosseini (and perhaps some of the writers on this site) often find themselves at the intersection of this debate: do they oppose or promote an issue because they are Muslims, or because they are (secular) feminists? The recent troubles with Femen’s anti-Islam actions seem to further divide these two groups. Nevertheless, the protests against Miss World suggest that female objectification is certainly one issue that both groups could agree on.


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