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Ray Hanania
Ray Hanania
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Beauty Pageants and the Ugly Debate

Comment

I used to watch beauty pageants purely for entertainment. But in recent years, they've become the focus of a cultural debate between the Arab world, and the rest.

The Miss Universe Pageant was held Sunday in Doral, Florida in the United States. It featured 88 female contestants competing in categories involving their culture, customs, intelligence, and, their physical beauty, including in revealing swimsuits.

Interestingly, many of the 88 contestants come from Muslim countries, like Turkey, so the issue really isn't about Islam. Of 22 Arab countries, this year, only two entered contestants, Egypt and Lebanon.

That's ironic because the Miss Universe Pageant is "presented" by one of the most successful Arab businessmen in America, Palestinian Farouk Shami who owns Farouk Systems, a hair care company, and a former candidate for Texas governor. Shami is close to the brilliant mega-business guru, Donald Trump, the host of the popular TV reality show, "Celebrity Apprentice," and a former presidential contender.

The absence of Arab pageant contestants is the subject of debate. This year, there was more controversy when the Lebanese contestant, Saly Greige, took a selfie photo with the Israeli contestant.

The Israelis made a big deal about it, arguing that Arabs are anti-Semitic and hate Jews. But in reality, it's the other way around. Israelis are racist and hate Arabs. The fact is any Israeli Arab who has anything to do with Lebanon or the Lebanese can be charged with treason. It's happened several times to Arab members of Israel's undemocratic Knesset.

Neither Israel nor the Arab contestants, Greige and Egypt's Lara Debbane, made it into the final 15 featured in the three hour international TV broadcast.

Ironically, one Arab contestant from Saudi Arabia was in the finals. Mary Jean Lastimosa was representing the Philippines but was born in Saudi Arabia of, as she described it, an "Arabian" father (who I assume is Saudi Arabian). Her mother is Philippina.

The five finalists were the United States, Netherlands, Ukraine, Jamaica and Colombia. Colombia's contestant, Paulina Vega, won. Vega will spend the next year touring the world promoting her charitable causes and her country, something the Arab countries badly need.

So what's the big deal about beauty pageants? Apparently, religious activists in the Arab world, like secular activists in the West, feel pageants are demeaning.

The difference is that while the Arab world protestors clamor for "freedom" and "tolerance," they practice neither.

Despite criticism of beauty pageants in the West and Muslim world, their countries allow entrants.

That's what true freedom is all about. The right to chose and live your own life without being imposed upon by others. The absence of tolerance is the foundation of tyranny and oppression and that's the problem in the Arab world.

For example, Arab women who have tried to enter the contest have been threatened with death. The religious fanatics and extremists have bullied their societies into rejecting individual woman's rights. By not participating, they empower religious extremism.

Woman are not free in the Arab world. They are forced to live in parameters defined by men. Although the berqa is allegedly a symbol of choice, the fact is many women who wear the full body covering do so because of fear.

Some Arab Women claim they wear the burqa by choice, although it is not required by Islam, which dictates that women observe practices of "modesty." A "berqa" and a "hijab" are two different things. The Hijab is similar to a Christian scarf worn by women in the West.

Modesty is not required of Arab men. Many Arab men have several wives outside of Islam, gamble heavily, drink alcohol and dress immodestly. The biggest porn stars on the Internet feature Arab women, driven largely by large audiences of Arab and Muslim men.

The Arab world doesn't like to "air" this "dirty laundry." They don't like to admit to their faults, something other societies do as a means of correcting those faults and those failings. You can't fix something without first admitting that it is broken.

The Arab world is dominated by oppression, tyranny, religious suppression and racism. And, worse, by hypocritically criticizing select countries while closing their eyes to the same oppression around them.

"Honor killings," for example, are widespread in the Arab world. Yet discussion of it is suppressed and censored. The Arabs find it embarrassing to acknowledge in public. It's the practice of killing women for a wide range of acts that "shame" the males in their families. Efforts to curtail it have failed. In some instances, when fathers and brothers have sexually assaulted and raped their female children or sisters, the female victims have been murdered to protect the men and boys. In many parts of the Arab world, men are seen as more valuable than women.

So it is ironic to hear some Arab women protest loudly against beauty pageants, while the Arab female society is pressured into silence over more serious and violent problems.

One day, all 22 Arab countries will enter a contestant in the Miss Universe Pageant. Then we'll know that the freedom that the "Arab Spring" promised but failed to deliver has finally arrived.

Until then, we have to suffer through Arab world oppression and the hypocritical debate.

Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist managing editor of The Arab Daily News at www.TheArabDailyNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @RayHanania. To find out more about Ray Hanania and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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