Everything was in place for the final selection of “Miss Beautiful Bangladesh” at the end of April when the Awami League government decided to step in. Organised by Model Watch, a private outfit, the competition had reached thus far after travelling through the five main divisional towns of Bangladesh, only to be halted when the conservative Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami threatened to disrupt the event.
Fifty young, upwardly mobile models – yummies? – who were vying for the national crown were left wondering, and perhaps for the first time understanding, what politics is all about. When the Jamaat gave its boycott call at a protest meeting in downtown Dhaka, cabinet ministers and senior police officers went into a huddle and served a restraining notice on the sponsors.
Beauty contests are not new to Bangladesh even though it is an ‘Islamic’ country to some. While the first contest to choose a Miss Bengal and a Miss Bangladesh was held in London in 1994, the event subsequently moved to Bangladesh. On the whole, beauty contests in the Brahmaputra delta are sedate affairs, considered harmless, rather like a flower show.
There was a time when ministers of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, while in power between 1991-1996, were eager guests at such contests. This time, however, the same faces joined hands with the Jamaat in demanding a ban. For its part, the Awami League government seemed to have decided to concede to the conservative demands because it had enough problems on its hands trying to get the opposition to accept the Chittagong Hill Tracts treaty.
“It wasn’t something which deserved this kind of response. Nothing considered remotely indecent is ever done at these events, such as swimsuit walkons, etc,” said Chinmoy Mutsuddi, who was a judge at the first contest in London and now edits an entertainment weekly in Dhaka.
The Jamaat had raised no objection to the preliminary rounds held in the divisional towns, which were widely reported in the papers. Neither had there been any significant public reaction, and the judges ranged from municipality chiefs and MPs to local social figures. In fact, there had been mild surprise that the leadership of Sylhet, considered a very conservative area, had kept mum. But then, it has to be kept in mind that the original London contest was sponsored by no other than the enterprising expatriate Sylhetis, famous for selling Indian food to the English.
The unexpected threats from the Jamaat and the buckling under by the government left Rezaul Islam of Model Watch distraught. Having chaperoned the contest for months, he was naturally hurt by the clamp-down. “It was not just the loss of money but the pain of such a lot of effort wasted.”
Jamaat leaders told journalists that beauty contests were “un-Islamic”. When women are not allowed to show their face to men other than their husbands, how could they allow the whole world to watch women on stage, that too specifically to gauge their beauty, they asked. When asked why they were not in the forefront of protests against the sensational level of rapes and violence against women and children in Bangladesh, they preferred silence.
All that can be said, perhaps, is that this year, the contest was won by the Jamaat.