Miss Iraq Beauty Pageant to Go On Despite Death Threats

The first internationally-recognized 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.

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Instead, organizers 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. Organizers have dropped the swimsuit section of the competition and postponed the televised finale in an attempt to deflect some of the criticism.

However, the organizers and most contestants, backed by many ordinary Iraqis, remain determined to press ahead with an event they see as marking a step toward normalcy in a society still deeply divided and traumatized 12 years after the U.S.-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 organizers 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 organized the competition according to standards appropriate to Iraqi society to prove to the world that Iraq is a civilized 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 Oct. 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 organizers of being Freemasons, a loaded insult in the Middle East where the secretive, fraternal organization 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.

A third of Iraq is now controlled by Islamic State, 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 Islamic State has raised concerns that Iraq is moving toward 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 honor 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.

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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”.

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