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Mon 28 Sep 2015 05:32 PM

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Backlash against plans to revive Miss Iraq beauty pageant

Tribal leaders, religious hardliners oppose contest and 2 contestants quit after death threats

Backlash against plans to revive Miss Iraq beauty pageant
Competitors pose on stage during the Miss Kurdistan 2013 beauty pageant in Arbil (Getty Images)

The first
internationally-recognised Miss Iraq beauty contest in more than 40 years was
supposed to present a gentler, softer side to a country whose name has become
synonymous with violence and bloodshed.

Instead,
organisers are facing an angry backlash from religious hardliners and
conservative tribal leaders who say such pageants are un-Islamic and threaten
public morality.

At least two
young women have pulled out of the contest after receiving death threats.
Organisers have dropped the swimsuit section of the competition and postponed
the televised finale in an attempt to deflect some of the criticism.

However, the
organisers and most contestants, backed by many ordinary Iraqis, remain
determined to press ahead with an event they see as marking a step towards
normalcy in a society still deeply divided and traumatised 12 years after the US-led
overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

"There are
many indications that Iraq is finished, but such contests give hope that life
in Iraq goes on," said Senan Kamel, the pageant's spokesman and one of its
judges.

Kamel said
organisers had tried to tone down or adapt aspects of the contest out of
respect for the taboos and sensibilities of a conservative Muslim country which
frowns on the public display of women's bodies.

"We
deliberately organised the competition according to standards appropriate to
Iraqi society to prove to the world that Iraq is a civilised country with a
civic soul and a spirit of life," he said.

For example,
swimsuits have been replaced with a more conservative outfit, though a ban on
Islamic headscarves remains, in keeping with the protocol of Western pageants.

"If we
don't stick to the standards, we will not receive approval to participate in
international competitions, but for sure we are not at the stage of wearing
bathing suits," said Kamel.

The pageant's
televised finale, originally set for October 1, has been moved back to at least
December after threats by tribal leaders opposed to young women from their
families taking part.

Such gestures
have failed to appease the naysayers.

A pro-Shi'ite
Muslim television channel warned this month that the event would corrupt public
morals and "create a base culture while our people face the danger of
terrorism".

It accused the
organisers of being Freemasons, a loaded insult in the Middle East where the
secretive, fraternal organisation is widely seen as pro-Zionist and hostile to
Islam.

Beauty pageants
have steadily lost their appeal in Western countries, where many see them as
demeaning to women and as a throwback to a more sexist era, but in Iraq they
can bring hopes for social change and greater openness.

Under Saddam
Hussein's secular rule, nightclubs and alcohol were available and clerics had
little say in public policy.

Since a US-led
invasion toppled him in 2003, liberals have been squeezed out as violence
between the ascendant Shi'ite Muslim majority and minority Sunnis fragments the
country along sectarian lines and fuels religious radicalism and intolerance.

A third of Iraq
is now controlled by ISIL, the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim militants who
believe women must be fully covered or face harsh punishment, including death.

Shi'ite Iran's
backing for powerful militias fighting ISIL has raised concerns that Iraq is
moving towards a theocracy.

Baghdad's
Shi'ite-led government, formed last year with backing from Iran and the United
States, has so far steered clear of the controversy over the beauty pageant.

The outcry has
not discouraged Miss Iraq contestant Lubna Hameed, a 21-year-old university
student from Baghdad, who said she hoped to serve as a role model for Iraqi
women.

"God
willing, I will try to ignore (the criticism) because it is an honour to
represent my country Iraq," she told Reuters after a screening interview
at the studios of Al Mada television station which is hosting the pageant.

In similarly
defiant vein, Hamsa Khalid, an 18-year-old high school student, said hostility
would not deter her from taking part, saying the message she hoped to deliver
as Miss Iraq could be summed up in one word: "Peace".

The first and
last time Iraq participated in a major international beauty pageant was in 1972
when Wijdan Burhan al-Deen represented the country at the Miss Universe
contest.

Iraqi social
clubs have since hosted occasional contests, but by widening the applicant pool
and registering with the government, organisers of this Miss Iraq contest hope
the winner will once again qualify for prestigious international pageants.

They plan to
send representatives to competitions in Egypt and Thailand. Judges are
currently whittling down an applicant pool of 50 finalists to 10.

The contestants
will receive instruction in etiquette and public speaking and will volunteer to
help some of the three million Iraqis displaced by fighting between the army
and ISIL.

Some Iraqis
said they were disheartened by the controversy over the pageant.

"We are
glad to see more things like this. We Iraqis have been deprived of many things.
Many young people are migrating. People are not comfortable here," said
Ali, a 21-year-old soldier, at a Baghdad restaurant.

"These are
people who do not want Iraq to do well, to improve. These people want to go
backwards."

Contestants
hail from across Iraq, including Mosul, the northern city seized by ISIL in
2014.

Pageant
spokesman Kamel said that, contrary to accusations that it is undermining
traditional values, the contest aimed to take a first step towards revitalising
Iraq's cultural scene, once one of the most dynamic in the Middle East.

"We are
searching for a personality to represent Iraq, a woman to be a real
ambassador", he said.

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