Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Why the Miss Iraq beauty pageant offers merely a sham of stability

Behind the glitz of the competition, Iraq's women are more invisible than they have ever been, writes Faisal Al Yafai
The newly crowned Miss Iraq Shaymaa Abdelrahman reacts during the beauty pageant in Baghdad (Reuters/Ahmed Saad)
The newly crowned Miss Iraq Shaymaa Abdelrahman reacts during the beauty pageant in Baghdad (Reuters/Ahmed Saad)

Beauty pageants should, in theory, be beyond criticism, seeing as they are already beyond parody. Contrived questions asked of would-be “queens”, sparkly, permanently-upbeat, perma-tanned contestants, pro-forma declarations of seeking world peace – all smack of a view of the world, and a view of female identity, straight out of the 1970s.

Still, what I’m about to say is unlikely to be popular. Iraq’s beauty pageant last weekend was a sham.

Already I can hear the uproar. This event, held last Saturday, was the first Miss Iraq held since 1972. It was a chance, as the organisers put it, to “give hope that life in Iraq goes on” and to celebrate Iraq’s “spirit of life”.

What rankles further is that the pageant has been reported as a sign of stability and progress, both for the country and for women. But it is nothing of the sort. Consider the evidence.

In terms of women's rights, Iraq has actually gone backwards in the past 15 years.

Iraq had a personal status law on women since the foundation of the modern republic in 1958. The post-2003 constitution replaced it. Legal protection against early marriage and arbitrary divorce have been watered down. Maternity leave has been cut.

Much of this, of course, is simply the consequence of 12 years of war and occupation. The destruction and then sectarianisation of the Baghdad government was felt, as all such upheavals are, disproportionately by women.

You don't have to be a feminist to dislike beauty pageants – religious conservatives do too, for their own reasons. (Some indeed threatened the organisers; from that perspective, it is good the event went ahead despite such threats.)

As with beauty pageants worldwide, the very existence of the contest enforced a particular, western-centric, idea of female beauty. The Iraqi organisers amended the international rules to remove the anachronistic swimsuit parade, but kept the ban on the headscarf, a garment that millions of Iraqi women wear. How is subscribing to an outsider's sense of beauty meant to celebrate the Iraqi woman?

There are, moreover, solid reasons to be concerned at the glaring disconnect between the public declarations of the show and the reality of life in Iraq today. This is a country, after all, still locked in a bitter internal political battle and a real war against ISIL militants.

It is a country where, while young Iraqis walk down a catwalk, it is still unsafe for women (and men) to walk down the street.

Where the number of women in work has plummeted since the US invasion. Where female political representation, though mandated by law, is contorted by political parties. Where the legal system cannot provide justice for the crimes committed against women by both Iraqis and Americans.

It isn't clear how any of those issues will be progressed by young girls wearing nice clothes and parading on a stage in front of judges. Nor is it especially clear how their doing so constitutes a “celebration of life”.

Worst of all is the bald celebration of Iraqi women for their physical beauty in one city – while in another city just a couple of hundred miles away, other Iraqi women are being enslaved for their physical bodies.

Perhaps all of this is too much to pin on one contest. It is, as defenders of such pageants routinely say around the world, a bit of fun. Indeed, it is at this point that male writers who discuss female beauty pageants traditionally have to point out that actually they quite like seeing attractive young women. Male criticism of beauty pageants must, like Hamlet's father, be made more in sorrow than in anger.

But I make no apology for seeing a regressive event as evidence of a profound misunderstanding of the real issues Iraqi women face. Because that is not a question of gender, it's a question of politics.

In the end, perhaps the greatest sadness is that this is now the only story of Iraq. The daily difficulties of a country rebuilding after a brutal invasion, occupation and near-civil war have been forgotten, wiped away in the flashes of photographer's light on exposed skin. Even as the stories of a few young girls are celebrated around the world, the real lives and issues of Iraq's women are more invisible than ever before.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Updated: December 21, 2015 04:00 AM