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World: Anger Over Indonesia's Entry In Miss Universe Pageant More Than Skin Deep

  • Kathleen Moore

Next week, some of the world's most beautiful young women will vie to be crowned Miss Universe. The Bangkok pageant will feature contestants from more than 80 countries -- including, for the first time in nearly a decade, Indonesia. And that's caused a bit of controversy, with protests from some Indonesian Muslim groups.

Prague, 26 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- She's beautiful. She's proud of her country. And she wants to help underprivileged children.

In many ways, Artika Sari Devi is very similar to the other young women who are vying for the Miss Universe crown.

But one thing marks Artika as different -- the protests in her home country against her taking part.

She spoke to Reuters in Bangkok.

"One thing that is a bit difficult for me is the pressure of the competition, but I have a lot of friends supporting me, and constantly sending me SMSs [text messages]. And there is the ongoing controversy in Jakarta about what the Koran says, and the newspapers are always discussing this, and the question of the 'swimsuit problem' with Miss Indonesia being in the Miss Universe pageant," Artika Sari Devi said.
She says she has at least made a concession to Islamic modesty -- unlike the other women, she won't be wearing a bikini.

That "swimsuit problem" is threatening to overshadow the contest.

It's the first time Miss Indonesia has competed in the international beauty pageant since the former government in the predominantly Muslim nation imposed a ban in the 1990s.

Some Muslim groups have condemned Artika's participation as an affront to religious values of decency.

An official from one group, the Indonesia Ulemas Council, called the contest "pornography."

Tertiani Simanjuntak works at the "Jakarta Post" daily.

"Most of [the critics] are from the Muslim organizations. They protest the country's participation in the Miss Universe contest because, according to them, it's a disgrace to the culture and women, as well as to the religion, Islam. There [has been a] protest on the street. Some of the protesters came to the company who pays for all the expenses of sending the contestant to Thailand. [And] they condemned the government for letting the contestant go to Thailand," Simanjuntak said.

It's not the first time beauty pageants have caused controversy in the Muslim world.

Three years ago, the Miss World contest sparked deadly riots in northern Nigeria after a local newspaper suggested the pageant was not insulting to Islam. The contest was moved to London.

Recent beauty contests in Egypt have drawn sharp criticism from religious and political leaders.

And a U.S.-Afghan woman was condemned in Kabul for appearing as a bikini-clad Miss Afghanistan in an international competition two years ago.

It's no surprise these pageants can prompt strong reaction. So says Farid El-Shayyal, a U.K.-based Egyptian lecturer in Islamic Studies.

"These contests and this kind of propaganda occasions are concerned mainly with the exposure of the woman's beauty. Most of these contests, if not all of them, include [a requirement] that the girls walk in swimming costumes or in very little clothing. To wear decent clothing is something which the Koran says distinguishes man from other species. Once people decide to go away from that in public, this is refused in Islam entirely," El-Shayyal said.

But Artika notes that other Muslim contestants will be taking part in the Miss Universe final -- and that they are baring more flesh.

She says she has at least made a concession to Islamic modesty -- unlike the other women, she won't be wearing a bikini.

"If you look at the contest, there are three Muslim contestants altogether. There's one from Germany, and one from Turkey, as well. They are also wearing [bikinis]. But I'm not wearing a bikini. I am wearing a full piece suit for the competition," Artika Sari Devi said.

Besides, Artika says, the contest is about more than clothes.

Whether she wins or not, she says it's an opportunity to showcase Indonesia at an international event.