Islamic beauty pageant takes on Miss World
While Islamist opposition to Miss World in Indonesia has made international headlines, World Muslimah, a different kind of pageant, is being held in the country with little media glare.
At World Muslimah (Miss Muslim World), which opened on Tuesday in Jakarta, one should not expect to see much skin as contestants are required to wear clothing that covers all but the face and hands.
For the first time in the pageant's three-year history, foreigners are among the 20 finalists - two from Nigeria, and one each from Malaysia, Brunei, Iran, Bangladesh and the United States.
They are mostly university students but there is also an architect, an environmental activist, a university lecturer and a doctor.
"For years, no one countered the hegemony of Miss World and Miss Universe pageants," said Eka Shanty, founder of the World Muslimah Foundation, the organization that holds the contest. "Now people are beginning to see that World Muslimah can be an Islamic alternative to Miss World."
Contestants were selected based on three general criteria: They must be smart, pious and stylish.
Aspiring contestants sent their applications online, including an essay and a video showing their Koran reading proficiency. They must also be wearers of the hijab, or Islamic head covering, in daily life. Judges then selected 100 applicants for the semi-final and picked 20 contestants for the final round.
At a resort with a large mosque featuring a blue dome and minarets in the West Java district of Subang, the finalists underwent grueling religious and social activities for four days. They woke up at 3 A.M. to perform morning prayers, had lunch with orphans, and attended classes in Islamic finance, parenting and the Koran.
"It's an amazing program and I'm so excited," said Nigerian contestant Aisha Aderonke Adeshina, a 21-year-old pharmacy student at the University of Lagos.
"It's very different from Miss World because their contest is about beauty, while here we have a contest for the beauty inside," said Adeshina, who wore a black flowing dress and a headscarf with red and white floral motifs. "But as the Koran says, let them do theirs and we do ours. It's only the [display] of aurah (forbidden parts of the body) that I'm against."
Ainee Fatima, a 22-year-old finalist from the United States, could not make it to Indonesia because her father was sick.
Fatima, who is seen photographed with former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her promotional video posted on the pageant's website, said her work on promoting interfaith tolerance has won government recognition.
"Since I began wearing the hijab, it offered me confidence to speak out on issues that I am passionate about and share my struggles as a young Muslim woman who lives in the United States," Fatima, who studies at DePaul University in Chicago, said on the website.
Winners will be announced at the grand final in Jakarta in a televised ceremony on September 18.
The winner will receive 25 million rupiah (2,200 dollars), a trip to Saudi Arabia to perform a pilgrimage, and junkets to Turkey and India. The crown holder will also serve as a humanitarian ambassador for underprivileged women in the Muslim world, Shanty said.
"In much of the Muslim world, women are victims of conflicts and gender appreciation is low," said Shanty, a former presenter at Indonesia's state-owned TVRI television station. "We are committed to supporting them through our charitable activities," she said. The World Muslimah Foundation is seeking to raise 5 billion rupiah this year to help Muslim women in need, she said.
Brunei will host next year's competition and three other countries are bidding to host future events.
Meanwhile, the final venue for the original Miss World, scheduled for September 28, is still up in the air.
The government has told organizers to move the final from a town near Jakarta to the resort island of Bali following days of protests by conservative Muslim groups. Organizers were seeking to reverse the decision.
Shanty said there was initial opposition from hardline Muslim groups, who suspected the Muslim pageant was "another Western capitalist project."
Amidhan Sabrah, chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, a semi-official authority on Islam in the country, sees no harm in the World Muslimah pageant. "They want to promote Muslim fashion and I think that's something positive," he said.
Bilqis Paradiba, a contestant from Jakarta and an international relations student, says she joined the contest because she wanted to champion disadvantaged Muslim women.
"It's not really a beauty contest because the winner is not a beauty queen but a humanitarian ambassador," she said.
"Hijab isn't a fashion statement. It's a religious statement," she said. "It's OK to be stylish, but smart and pious are more important."