Miss Palestine’s mistaken rebellion

One of the travesties of living in a colonized environment is that the inferior, or oppressed, aspire to win admittance to the Western world. There seems to be an emerging trend of this type of appeasement, where submission has replaced the revolution. The introduction to spectacles, like the breaking of a Guinness record for the largest plate of kanafeh and the search for a national beauty queen, are just two examples of how absurd practices are coming to be seen as normal in Palestinian cities.
In Nazareth, at the final ceremony of the Miss Palestine beauty pageant last month, confetti was poured over the participants, and a jeweled Victorian-style crown was placed on the head of the winner – a girl with blue eyes and blonde hair. Yara Mashour, organizer of Nazareth’s Miss Palestine, said she started the pageant because she wanted to introduce people to modern women. “I believe in freedom,” Mashour said. “This pageant is about empowering women.” Mashour, who considers herself a modern woman, boasts about her Western education and being unmarried. She wants Nazareth, she said, to become a part of the international world.

This was the fifth year for the Miss Palestine beauty pageant, also called Miss Lilac. Some in Nazareth repudiated the pageant as an over-expensive effort, while the reaction from Israelis was “backward,” as Mashour said. “Every time Israelis see us moving forward, they get shocked. They don’t want to see us as progressive people.”

But being ostracized isn’t a concern for Mashour. She is used to resentment from Nazarenes for the “taboo” subjects her magazine highlights, such as sex, orgasms and nose jobs. Along with her sister, Mashour started Lilac magazine almost ten years ago and they received so much attention that even The New York Times wrote about it. It called the magazine a “Western-styled hybrid of Cosmo Girl and People with an Arab setting,” a feat, of course, for the sisters.

Occupied Miss Palestine canceled

In Ramallah, the circumstances were different. The inaugural West Bank beauty pageant was set to run on 26 December (a day prior to the first anniversary of the Israeli-led war on the Palestinian people in Gaza). But five days before the competition, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials decided to cancel the event because of the “conflicting schedule.”

Hamas published a press release prior to the PA’s decision, stating that such a contest “completely contradicts Palestinian values and traditions.” The statement added, “Showing beautiful girls in front of the mass media and the audience while our people in Gaza are suffering … is rejected and is considered a blind imitation of Western traditions.”

Miss Palestine quickly became a sickly fascination for journalists. One publication reported the event was a way of providing a “new angle on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” So when the pageant was canceled Israeli and Western press demonized the PA, but more so Hamas, for its decision to stop the pageant. What fascinated reporters and editors alike was the facade that Palestinians are becoming, or attempting to become, a society based on idealisms of liberty and empowerment, yet are denied this facade because of Islam or being, simply, Palestinian.

In a Global News article, the reporter described Salwa Yusef, Ramallah’s pageant organizer, as a defiant woman who is divorced and smokes cigarettes. She tragically spoke about her dream of starting a beauty pageant as if saying it would civilize the West Bank. “We are a society just like any other — yes we live under occupation, but that does not mean we cannot have celebrations.” Yusef, like Mashour, seems to think that a beauty pageant could liberate Palestinian women and encourage them to become independent. However, the majority of women who signed up for the event dropped out because of pressure from their families.

On choosing to have the pageant on nearly the same day as the Gaza war commemoration, Yusef unabashedly said that she was not political. She repeatedly expressed hope that the Miss Palestine competition would proceed in January (if the PA allows it.)

The tragedy, here, is not only the transformation of women into fetishized commodities, but the belief that these events will create a sense of normalcy in Palestine. While both pageant organizers might mean well, their yearning for recognition and appeasement from the West only places them in a static and inferior space where they are devaluing the Palestinian struggle. If only we could convince them otherwise. This is why we must first decolonize the mind before we decolonize the land.
Sousan Hammad is a writer and journalist based in the Palestinian city of Nazareth. Her blog is http://www.sousanhammad.com and she can be reached at sousan DOT hammad AT gmail DOT com. This article was originally published at Electronic Intifada and is reprinted with permission.


  • Arwa A says:

    Thanks for this article. It really hit the nail on the in terms of somethings I’d seen myself when I visited Palestine and Israel last year.. There was a real sense in some cities that young Palestinians wanted to be like their Isreali counterparts not just to make themselves feel better but also because it made life easier..

    Even so, I don’t think that we should write off Palestinians or Palestinian youths, there are some doing fanstatic work and there is a very strong sense of pride in being Palestinian..
    Also some change is inevitable and most of the Middle East seems to be emulating the West (eg. Jordan) and they are not even under occupation or colonized!!

  • living3d says:

    @Arwa – it’s not just the middle east that is emulating the west – it’s most of the world.  India and China, most obviously.

    I also don’t see much of a problem with anyone wanting to imitate someone else’s culture.  I’m american but I take on some Middle Eastern cultural aspects, and some South and Native American cultural aspects and practices.  Further, it souns like there really isn’t tht much of a following to this anyway – it’s not like the trend is taking over palestine the way the hijab more recently took over Egypt.

    Somehow this author thinks that this is the “transformation of women into fetishized commodities” – but a transformation involves fundamental change.  I think its arguable that many women have already been valued as “fetishized commodities” in current Palestinian society – these just wear western clothes and operate on a different sexual ideal: that the most valuable women is the most obviously physically attractive, versus the most valuable being the one that only you can have/own (from what I understand, some of the men who are the most cruel to women desire both, of course).  Either way, the most important part about a woman is her commodity – sex. 

    If there’s an important issue in this, it’s the ability to live your life the way that you choose and value what you choose. I know the press can be ridiculous, but I can see why this got attention in the west.

    And just as a final note, “colonialization” is not the same as “westernization.”  This one is the latter.  Last I checked, this was in “modern” Palestine which isn’t exactly a colony. The Israeli settlements are, but I wouldn’t exactly claim that beauty contests were a part of their culture either.

  • Saadia says:

    I see what the author is saying but just to provide some counterpoints: Arab TV stations across the region show women dressing in Western fashions.

    Samira Said of Morocco has that same outfit. I am mostly noticing her good singing, even though I think that she has a wider range of outfit choices to pick from given the rich Arab heritage and its interactions with different cultures.

    Awra directed the conversation to the issue of whether the women wearing these clothes are under colonization. So then the issue is about whether there is a threat to their security, given their knowledge of the environment. While blindfolds can be removed, it is still up to them. For example, maybe there are some around who are similarly dressed, like Israelis who don’t wear orthodox garbs. Or perhaps they want to win an award and will adjust accordingly.

    That said, I think that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan does a fine job of incorporating Western music into Pakistani classical styles in various dialects, and therefore overcomes barriers. (This is in Urdu despite saying Punjabi Love)


    In doing so he praises all things uniquely female while remembering the Divine.

  • Saadia says:

    living3d: Good points.

  • living3d says:

    @Saadia: “I see what the author is saying” – the author of the article?  That doesn’t seem like counterpoint, that seems like corroboration of her point.

    “So then the issue is about whether there is a threat to their security, given their knowledge of the environment” – I’m not quite sure what that has to do with colonization.

    Or exactly what you meant by this: “While blindfolds can be removed, it is still up to them. “

  • living3d says:

    thanks though.

  • Saadia says:

    Sousan is saying that Palestinian people shouldn’t mentally subjugate their own heritage to that of the West, thereby devaluing the Palestinian struggle.

    “While both pageant organizers might mean well, their yearning for recognition and appeasement from the West only places them in a static and inferior space where they are devaluing the Palestinian struggle.”

    While I agree with esteeming Palestinian heritage, her statement somewhat perpetuates the idea of cultures that have to remain separate from each other.

    The idea of the “modern West” vs. the “traditional and authentic” is often held in former colonies. But it varies as well – India and China have their own way of dealing with new and Western influences on their society, than say France where the new and the traditional are reflected in the different quarters of Paris.

    In demonstrating these music videos that tastefully combined Western and Eastern cultural traditions, I also show that barriers can be overcome.

    By showing the Samira Said’s video, I am demonstrated what living3d said: the West is being emulated in many parts of the world that aren’t even colonized.

    Also, would these women’s outfits been such a problem if there wasn’t a conflict between Israel and Palestine? From what I read they were wearing dresses.

  • Saadia says:

    By removing blindfolds I mean full awareness of a situation and what is considered normal and safe within it. I personally feel it varies with the circumstance and with the number of people around.

    Some people believe in wearing hijabs (head coverings) and abayas (loose-fitting long dresses) whenever they are visible to people outside of their families. It can be graceful and if that’s what they choose its a choice that ought to be protected as well.

    While some may feel that those who don’t follow those standards are somehow more modern and more belonging to the West, I think its just about a realistic diversity.

    As I said these women were wearing dresses. Its unfortunate that it created such a controversy.

  • OmarG says:

    Meh, setting up “being Palestinian” as a contrastive identity (“We are what you are NOT!”) is still a loosing proposition. Being different just to be different is what, eh, teenagers do…

  • OmarG says:

    >>Sousan is saying that Palestinian people shouldn???t mentally subjugate their own heritage to that of the West, thereby devaluing the Palestinian struggle.

    Why? Those following their heritage are unable to win. Most of the “winners” in today’s world follow so-called Western methods. There has to be something to that…

  • Saadia says:

    Omar, how do you define winner? I think this is a good back and forth to have.

    People in the West follow their own heritage and they win.

    Obama won as the first President with African roots. He incidentally made a speech in Cairo about briding gaps and a new way forward.

    Not only that but there is Keith Ellison as a politician and Karim Abdul Jabbar and Muhammad Ali as athlete. If you are referring to movies, there was “The Kingdom of Heaven” – about people in the Middle Ages who wanted peace.

    I don’t expect everyone to take on Islam, as there is no coercion in religion (Chapter 2 of the Quran). But when people can identify with someone’s experiences and interpret it to fit their own, that relates people to each other on a human level.

  • Saadia says:

    In regards to overcoming barriers:

    It should be apparent that Muslims can integrate – men are (explicitly) given permission to marry Christian and Jewish women, and Islam affirms the chain of earlier Prophets, for example, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (Peace Be Upon Them).

    Moreover, the historic Muslim cultural footprint remains in some of the most culturally rich Western European Christian countries like Spain and Italy (e.g. Sicily).

    Also, Muslims have historically protected religious minorities in their countries.

  • Saadia says:

    The other issue I’m having with this article is that I read “Decolonizing the Mind” was a book by Frantz Fanon. If I’m not mistaken I remember he said that resistance against the old French colonialism had to be cathartic, and so there were some hints of violence in his theories.

    It may set back peace efforts if Palestinians are generally characterized in that way. Rather people have to be humanized and different societal trends should be seen with realism to facilitate better solutions.

    A speaker at a related briefing on the Hill said they were taking some videos of Gaza for Israelis to see. A female speaker with Partners for Peace once said that people don’t always see what is going on in Gaza, but when they do they realize what people there are going through. Other ladies from Israel told stories about family members affected by bombings as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *