YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — Backstage in makeup at Miss Muslimah 2014, Miss Iran prefers to demonstrate rather than explain the difference between being beautiful and seductive.
“I mean, I can sit here with a hijab, and suppose you are a guy,” she says, leaning in close and flashing bedroom eyes. “I could sit here like this and say, ‘Hi, how are YOU doing?’”
“Or,” she continues, switching to a curt tone and straight back, “I can say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ You can see the difference.”
Miss Iran, otherwise known as Samaneh Zand, a 25-year-old industrial designer, confesses she is “not the pageant type” but decided to enter the Miss Muslimah competition because it is not about “showing off” or being the sexiest contestant.
Developed by Eka Shanty, a former Indonesian TV presenter who lost her job because she refused to take off her hijab on the air, the pageant’s formal name is the World Muslimah Award. But it’s known informally as the Miss Muslimah, perhaps because it is billed as Islam’s answer to Miss World.
As far as beauty pageants go, Miss Muslimah is uniquely modest, says 26-year-old Miss Singapore, Masturah Binte Jamil.
“In Miss World you have to wear the two-piece and all is exposed,” explains Jamil, who quit her job as a teacher to take part in the competition. “But that is not allowed in our religion, so this is the one and only event for Muslim women.”
Instead of bikini parades and talent quests, Miss Muslimah contestants take part in recitals from the Koran, Islamic shopping challenges and debates about whether nail polish is haram, or forbidden under Islamic law.
Staged in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation since 2011, the event is now attracting an increasingly international lineup. This year participants have flown in from Trinidad, Nigeria, Iran, Tunisia, the U.K. and across Southeast Asia to take part.
Over the course of a 12-day “quarantine period,” the finalists rise early for 5 a.m. makeup sessions and spend long days in three-inch heels as they crunch through a jam-packed schedule, including visits to a slum, an old people’s home and a string of corporate sponsors — all the while being judged on their piety.
On a handful of nights the contestants are also woken up at 2 a.m. for an additional prayer on top of the customary five daily prayers in Islam, often running on just three hours of sleep per day. Miss Iran admits she has hardly had time to think, but the organizers are unapologetic.
“We’re trying to find an excellent personality that can be a role model, an ideal figure to stand on behalf of millions of Muslim women in the world,” says Shanty. “Of course this is very challenging and stressful, but I think it’s worth it for them.”
After no-shows from Miss Palestine, Egypt, Germany and USA due to visa and family reasons, the contest is whittled down to 18 contestants.
One lucky Muslimah (which means Muslim woman in Arabic) will win $10,000 worth of gold dinars, a culinary tour of South Korea, a gold watch and a trip to Mecca.
Initially developed as a showcase for Islamic fashion, Miss Muslimah has since evolved into an event with deeper humanitarian aims.
This year the contestants will take part in a new segment, where they will be asked to outline their vision for improving the lives of their Muslim sisters around the globe.
Behind the scenes, Miss Bangladesh, 26-year-old Tasnima Tarannum Karishma, a newly graduated doctor, has emerged as one of the favorites.
Karishma filed her application for the competition at the last minute, in between shifts at her obstetrics ward, because she wants women in Bangladesh to be seen as more than just “reproductive machines.”
The internist says she is appalled that women in Bangladesh lack basic education and health care — and even basic respect from their families when they present in a critical condition.
“Their husbands say, ‘It’s OK, I can get another daughter, another wife, you don’t need to save her,” explains Karishma. “Others leave their wives and daughters-in-law and then we have to manage them.”
Miss India, or Nazreen, a 21-year-old psychology student who provides free lessons for 25 women, also scores high in the altruism sweepstakes. Each weekend Nazreen tutors her students in a range of subjects, including English, Urdu, Hindi, mathematics and drawing.
At a time when brutalities inflicted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) dominate global headlines, the Muslimah award organizers hope the event can provide an opportunity for positive stories about Islam.
With her Ph.D. application recently rejected by a French university because she wears a hijab, Miss Tunisia is also saddened by the prevalence of Islamophobic stereotypes in her adopted home.
“When you wear the headscarf in France, people have their own way of looking at you,” says Fatma Ben Guefrache, 25, an engineering major. “It’s a problem across Europe. People don’t distinguish between an ordinary Muslim and a terrorist.”
With dresses that drip with diamantes and eyes aflutter with fake lashes, at times the World Miss Muslimah event looks just like a beauty pageant in Islamic clothing.
Despite the lectures on Islamic conceptions of beauty — it’s inner beauty that counts — the participants, who are required to wear the headscarf, spend hours applying their makeup and are frequently applauded on their physical appearance.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a pageant,” says Miss Iran, laughing. “But it’s not bad, actually; it is kind of entertaining.”
Others are less forgiving. Privately they criticize the corporate cosmetics sponsor that some felt pushed into endorsing and the fact that all contestants, including Miss Nigeria and Miss Bangladesh, were given skin lightening creams.
Or that for all the talk of female empowerment, some odd role models were presented, including a female Algerian professor who argued that women in Saudi Arabia are free even though they are banned from driving.
On the eve of coronation night, outspoken Miss U.K., designer and blogger Dina Torkia, is at the end of her tether. “I think the only difference it has from a regular beauty pageant is the name,” says Torkia. “And the fact that we are all wearing scarves on our head.”
As the pressure mounts, other simmering pageant controversies that in kinder, less political moments might be dismissed as cultural idiosyncrasies, feel glaringly awry.
Why, for example, does the Talents Spectrum Assessment — a pseudoscientific Indonesian finger scan test purported to identify specific character traits from a fingerprint — account for 20 percent of a contestant’s final score?
Why was only one of the contestants, the best singer, allowed to lead in the Koranic recital practice when in reality all final 10 would be judged on it?
Could a supernatural pawang hujan (“rain-stopper’’ in Indonesian) really prevent a downpour on coronation night after days of steady precipitation?
And in the psychological test — what the organizers in awkward English refer to as the “psycho” test — was it worse to come off as lustful or vengeful when presented with catch-22-style questions such as this one, where contestants had to choose either A or B as an answer:
- a) I like to listen and tell some jokes concerning sex matter.
- b) I want to revenge people who insult me.
“Miss Muslimah has the potential to be really beneficial for Muslim women,” sums up Torkia, “but right now I feel like it is a bit embarrassing.”
Yet come coronation night at Yogyakarta’s Prambanan Hindu temple compound, excitement is back in the air.
The dressing room is a flurry of activity as suitcases of gold stilettos and designer dresses are wheeled in and contestants preen in front of the mirror and consult the Koran for last-minute guidance.
Miss Iran is upset that the hot pink kaftan she has been allocated makes her look “three times as big,” while Miss Bangladesh complains that her fake eyelashes look “like a bush.”
After spending almost an hour poring over the holy book with last year’s winner, Miss India is horrified when she realizes she has left her sash at the hotel.
And when one of the assistants comes in to announce “Five minutes!” Miss Malaysia is so nervous, she feels as if she is “about to jump off KLCC tower,” the highest building in Kuala Lumpur.
In floor-length pastel gowns and two-tone hijabs embellished with beading and lace, the contestants are led through an Arabesque facade onto the stage, before walking out on the catwalk and reciting a passage from the Koran.
After almost two weeks of anticipation, the question remains: Who will be the final winner? The glamorous and opinionated Miss U.K? The model-like engineer, Miss Tunisia, or the selfless doctor, Miss Bangladesh?
Down to the final five, and without a single drop of rain, all three have made it through. Then, in a last-minute twist, Miss India is called onto the stage with no explanation. Planned or not, the sudden change to a final six, not five, only heightens the theatrics.
When it comes time for the 100 orphans and underprivileged children to cast the final and decisive vote, it is between a fortuitous Miss India and Miss Tunisia, nervously awaiting the vote at the front of the stage.
As the numbers flicker 51-49 in her favour, it takes several seconds for Miss Tunisia’s shock to manifest into teary elation, even after the trophy and flowers are placed in her arms.
After embracing Miss India, the newly crowned Miss Muslimah 2014, dressed in a fairytale ball gown in hues of green, is quick to declare her support for less frivolous issues.
“I just want to say, may Allah help me to do some very important things for the Muslim world,” she manages, slightly overwhelmed. “And I will ask you something, to always keep in your prayers Palestine, Gaza, Syria and all Muslims suffering all over the world.”