|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
10 - 16 May 2001
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The next Nefertiti or merely nefarious?The Miss Egypt contest raised the question of whether such competitions benefit women or only demean them. Dena Rashed looks for an answer
"A good woman inspires a man, a brilliant woman interests him, a beautiful woman fascinates him, but a sympathetic woman gets him." Helen Rowland.
Young women with pretty faces, big smiles and perfect bodies parading in their swim suits immediately come to mind when one thinks of beauty pageants. Many people, therefore, think they only evaluate women's physical beauty and that this is offensive.
Gamal Heshmat, a member of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the People's Assembly, protested the Miss Egypt beauty pageant in parliament, declaring it disgraceful to all Arabs and Muslims.
"I believe that such contests are against our values and morals, that they only demean women, rather than benefit them," Heshmat told Al-Ahram Weekly. He claims that these pageants address only the beauty of women's bodies and faces but not that of their personalities. "There are hundreds of other ways of measuring the beauty of women's minds and surely this contest is not one of them," he added.
It is not just conservative men in Egypt and the Arab world who oppose these competitions. Many feminists also disapprove of them.
What is wrong with beauty contests? We have had them for more than half a century; (l-r) Miss Egypt 2001; 1999; 1998 and 1959
Julia Morley, widow of Miss World creator Eric Morley and now head of the universal beauty pageant, told the Observer last month that the Miss World pageant is "stupid" and "awful." She is trying to find a new concept for the competition, something that will further the contestants' education, such as scholarships, for example. As for the swim suit parade, she finds it very unnatural and uncomfortable to women.
Those who participated in the Miss Egypt pageant disagree. Sally Shahin, the 23-year-old first runner-up, expected the contest to have a positive impact and it did. As a mass communication graduate, she feels the competition was in her interest. "I do not believe that the 11 interviews held with each contestant prove that the pageant is just about the girls' looks," Shahin says.
"We were questioned on everything, whether on the status of women over the last century or on general knowledge or, simply, on the way we think," she muses. "It is true that the beauty of the face counts but that is normal, for the first thing that catches your eye when you see someone is her or his looks. But then you come to know the true person by talking to her or him and you therefore can judge the personality," she reasons.
Shahin did not realise that the beauty contest in which she participated would be discussed in parliament. "That is ridiculous," she says. "I do not believe it is degrading at all to take part in a contest that gets you to be more independent and goal-oriented when it comes to your future," she adds.
Mourad Makram, the Egyptian TV broadcaster who presented the beauty contest, is quick to defend it. "The beauty pageant has always existed in Egypt, as of the 1940s and 50s, and I find it pretty natural that there would be such a contest in our country," he says.
"We know how to respect our values and traditions and that was the case in the latest contest," he adds. "The 'swim suit parade' may not be appropriate, but there was no problem in the Egyptian competition, as the contestants' swim suits were covered by their long clothes."
He found that both the first runner-up and second runner-up, though not the most beautiful, were very witty and attributes their success to this. "I believe we should rather discuss more crucial issues in parliament -- corruption or unemployment -- and leave the contests for people to enjoy," he says.
MP Nariman El-Daramaly was surprised when she found out that the issue was brought up in parliament. "I personally, as a woman, regard the contest as very entertaining, not degrading to women at all," she says.
For her part, second runner-up Heba Mandour, 23, did not feel embarrassed to take part in the contest. On the contrary, she says she had a wonderful experience. Having to confront a large audience and getting to know 16 different girls and spending a whole week with them were the most enjoyable aspects of the experience, Mandour says.
"I do not know why a beauty contest is regarded as obscene. Wasn't one of us going to represent Egypt, in the end?" she adds. "Although I was aiming to win, I am satisfied and happy for Miss Egypt, Sarah Shahin, who went to Puerto Rico to participate in the Miss Universe contest."
Although the competition may address both the beauty of the mind and that of the figure, prominent writer Sekina Fouad has her own opinion of the Egyptian contest . "I am not against the idea of having a contest about beauty, for beauty is a value on its own, but what I hate is the imitation of all that is foreign," she says. "We are a society that has its own deeply rooted ethics and such a contest should address our own character, not just imported ideas from everywhere in the world," she adds. Fouad sees the Eastern woman as very distinctive in personality and beauty and therefore deserving of a competition that addresses this distinctiveness. For Fouad, beauty contests may suit some societies, but not necessarily ours.
"In the end, it is a cultural issue that should be discussed but definitely not in parliament," she says.
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