Fully covered by a full-length black abaya, 18-year-old Aya Ali al-Mulla, a high school graduate with high marks who hopes to go into medicine, beat out 274 other contestants for the title of Saudi Arabia's Miss Moral Beauty, and received prizes valuing over 5,000 Riyal (or $1,300 USD). But one night of corporeal attractiveness and a brief Q&A does not a moral beauty make; success in this competition is gained by a three-month-long observation and judging of the contestant's "dutifulness to parents and family," "service to society," "psychological state-of-mind," and "social and cultural awareness." And there's no faking that.
Though my kneejerk reaction was something like, "This is bullsh*t!" I decided a look beyond the impulse and meander through the convergence/divergence of feminism and a moral beauty pageant. What struck me was the similarity in sentiment espoused by the spokesperson for Miss Moral Beauty and feminists who protest traditional beauty contests for their objectification of women.
Judging a woman by something other than a pretty, makeup laden face and stick-thin physique is an idea I think most feminists can get down with; in fact, it sounds like something straight out of a pageant protestor's platform. For the judges of Miss Moral Beauty, beauty is something that is (and should be) located beyond a woman's physicality, and instead of focusing on a woman's body, they believe one should determine beauty by a person's thoughts and actions. Pretty feminist-y, right? But you probably feel like something about this is sticking in your feminist craw—and I think I know what it is.
Who determines what thoughts and actions are beautiful? In the case of the Miss Moral Beauty contest, the rightness of the contestants thoughts and actions are determined by the Islamic standards of Saudi Arabia, which is where some (but not all) would say feminism and Miss Moral Beauty part ways.
Deepak Iyer attempts to clear things up a bit:
The only problem is when men start looking for those exact qualities in their women, forcing a widespread shift towards those qualities…But then that is true of most pageants and the culprit here is the willfulness of women to change for men, not what they change to.
Ah-hah! Is that what is missing from the analysis: Miss Moral Beauty is a construction of men while anti-pageantry feminism is a construction of women? Well, yes and no. Though I wish this post could be that tidily ended, I can't help but feel that one dogma is as limiting as the next and question the idea that we need to end particular behaviors themselves instead of calling to the mat the values and assumptions behind those behaviors. By and for whom was this anti-pageant version of feminism constructed? What women aren't represented in that brand of feminist ideology, and why aren't they represented? Replacing one hierarchy with another isn't an adequate solution, and I think Miss Moral Beauty makes that clear.
Hijab and Abaya fashion photos from Hijab Style