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!