Muslim beauty pageant challenges Miss World contest

Muslim women from six countries defy western beauty ideals, emphasize spirituality

Muslim women from six countries wore headscarves and elaborately embroidered dresses as they took to the stage Wednesday for the finale of an Islamic beauty pageant in Jakarta, Indonesia, a riposte to the Miss World contest that has sparked hardline anger.

Twenty contestants showed off the latest Islamic fashion trends in the Muslimah World pageant and will also take part in other activities, such as reciting the Koran.

"We're just trying to show the world that Islam is beautiful," said Obabiyi Aishah Ajibola, a 21-year-old contestant from Nigeria told Agence France Presse. "We are free and the hijab is our pride." On Wednesday, Ajibola was crowned the winner of the pageant.

Organizers of the event said they wanted to show Muslim women there is an alternative to the idea of beauty put forward by the British-run Miss World pageant. They also stress that opposition to the pageant can be expressed non-violently.

Organizer Eka Shanti, who founded the pageant three years ago after losing her job as TV news anchor for refusing to remove her headscarf, bills the contest as "Islam's answer to Miss World."

"This year we deliberately held our event just before the Miss World final to show that there are alternative role models for Muslim women," she told AFP.

Despite a pledge by Miss World organizers to drop the famous bikini round in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, Islamist demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the event, denouncing the contest as "pornography" and burning effigies of the organizers.

The government finally bowed to the mounting pressure and ordered the whole three-week pageant be moved from Jakarta to Hindu-majority Bali, where it opened on Sept. 8. 

Despite the move, several embassies have issued warnings that the event might be targeted by violent groups.

"The embassy has received information that extremist groups may be planning to disrupt the Miss World pageant being held in Bali from September 8 to 28, potentially through violent means," the U.S. embassy in Jakarta said in a statement.

Spiritual training

More than 500 contestants competed in online rounds to get to the Muslimah World final in Indonesia. One phase involved the contenders comparing stories of how they came to wear the headscarf. 

On Wednesday night, contestants retold these stories and answered questions from judges at the final in a Jakarta shopping mall. Twenty finalists will be whittled down to four before a winner is crowned.

On Sept. 13, the event announced that Ainee Fatima, the U.S. contestant, had revoked her candidacy.

"Islamically, I am obliged to bring a mahram with me to travel, and since I am also not feeling very well and my father is not well either, I am withdrawing my entry," she wrote on the event's Facebook page.

The contestants, who could only enter the competition if they wear a headscarf, have undergone three days of training in the run-up to the final in Jakarta, waking up before dawn to pray together and practicing their Koranic reading skills.

"What I will be looking for is strength of personality -- someone with a vision for the future, who gives back to their community and shows that beauty is not just about bodies," said Jameyah Sheriff, an education expert from Malaysia who is on the judging panel.

Shanti said the contest was first held in 2011 and was then only open to Indonesians, but it proved so popular that it was opened to international entrants.

Lisa De Bode contributed to this report. With Al Jazeera and Agence France Presse.

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