It’s been almost a decade since I married and I’m a mother of two. I never found myself unattractive before marriage or after. To my children, I’m the world’s most beautiful mother and to my husband I am his beloved wife. Needless to say, to my parents I’m the best girl in the world! I receive the same care and attention from my friends and colleagues that I did before my marriage. But I only ‘learnt’ that one’s beauty is diminished with marriage, when Jannatul Naeem was stripped of her Miss World Bangladesh title on grounds of being married. As a married woman, I did a double take. One of the criteria of the competition was that the contestants had to be unmarried. Jannatul didn’t meet this requirement. Had her marital status not been revealed, the crown would be hers.
I first got to know about Jannatul Naeem through the social media. One of my acquaintances juxtaposed a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture of Jannatul, with the caption: ‘what the camera and makeup can do!’ Forget about the crowned Miss Bangladesh, but I don’t know if anyone has the right to insult any girl on the social media in such a manner. Surely there are no rules against using makeup in the contest! Jannatul was not the only contestant who used makeup in the pageant, each and everyone did. I was disgusted that a university-educated socially-established person could make such a crude and tasteless comment.
Other dubious and corrupt practices in selecting the winners were leaked out. It was revealed that a conflict had ensured between the organisers and the judges over the final selection of the winner.
If any foul play in the selection process is suspected, the matter certainly should be investigated. But is rather disturbing that public interest and debate focussed on whether Jannatul Naeem’s beauty was natural or bestowed by a beauty parlour, on the comparative merits and demerits of upscale city beauty salons and small-town beauty parlours, rather than the underhand manipulations in the selection process.
It was through all this debate and discussion that I learnt that the beauty contests must be unmarried. This criterion has been in place down the years. Age may be a factor in a beauty contest, but marital status is a ridiculous criterion. Does that mean marriage brings an end to a woman’s beauty? And if the unmarried status is linked to a woman’s virginity, what could be more insulting?
And, in this 21st century, why does a woman accept these conditions when entering a beauty contest? This year 25,000 young women entered the preliminary selection round for the Miss World Bangladesh contest. This was finally short-listed down to the ten finalists. Many have praised Jannatul Naeem for her mental strength and confidence to join and win the beauty contest despite being married at 16 (or perhaps 23) and then going through a divorce. She displayed a degree of courage, but then how appropriate is this platform to recognise such spunk? Do the thousands of young women who rushed forward to join the contest this year feel that beauty is the only means of displaying their spirit? Have we failed to create any other platform for them to express their strength, their skills and their verve?
Many men and women who imagine themselves to be liberal, point to gender equality and say that there should be a similar contest for men. It’s astonishing how regressive our thinking process has become. We are so eager to project project ourselves as commodities, to promote such pageants and to pass derisive comments about these too.
Even today in this so-called progressive and educated society, women are being divorced for their dark skin colour. The fact that several of the contestants among the finalists of this year’s contest were married at an early age, also serves to point out the real state child marriage to the government. The government may claim to have made strides in this regard, but ground reality tells another story.
An end must be brought to using women as commodities in the guise of women’s empowerment. There are many other creative means for a woman to display her strength, her skills and talents. The government and private sector must come forward to open these avenues to all. There is a need for awareness, for a change in mindset.
Let today’s woman be empowered through her education, knowledge, valour and strength. Let a woman be illuminated by her merit, her thinking and her inner beauty. Let strength and beauty of mind be the benchmark of beauty.
* Nishat Sultana is project coordinator, Gender Justice Diversity Programme, BRAC. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.