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In a world that rigidly defines beauty for women, what role do pageants play? Do they empower women and act as agents of sexual liberation? or do they objectify women and reinforce patriarchal notions? This post investigates.
“She is darker, stronger, looser, tougher, sexier. The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold.”
”How can an “ideal” be about women if it is defined as how much of a female sexual characteristic does not exist on the woman’s body, and how much of a female life does not show on her face?”
-Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are used against Women (1991)
The Tibetan exile community in Dharamshala, India, is playing host again to the beauty pageant, Miss Himalaya. The officially stated purpose of the event is “to bring women from the entire Himalayan region onto one platform to celebrate the beautiful cultures, people, and nature of the Himalayan region”.
However, since the creation of beauty pageants in exile in 2002, there have been mixed reactions to the contest with particular criticism by the former Kalon Tripa (Political Leader), Samdhong Rinpoche, who stated that it was ‘un-Tibetan’ and ‘against Buddhist principles’. Other Tibetans in exile claim that it is just a bit of light-hearted entertainment, some say that it is ‘sexually liberating’, yet few have publicly stated how such contests negatively define and affect the status and perception of women as a whole and its role in raising awareness about Tibet.
The criteria for entering Miss Himalaya (as with other most other national beauty pageants) are as follows:
Such criteria demonstrate precisely the problem with beauty pageants: they promote a very narrow, sexist conception of ‘beauty’. The notion that female beauty is related to a woman’s marital and procreative status is particularly offensive and outdated.
Speaking to Tibetans here, it is clear how growing up in what they term a predominantly religious society, and the sexual hypocrisy and repression that can go along with that, all too easily leads to a reactionary, yet destructive, backlash where sexual ‘liberation’ becomes destructive and objectifying.
In fact, when the majority of media images and ideology pumped into post-colonial countries like India are those predominantly produced by a small group of neo-liberal, capitalist misogynist men (and women) from the USA, whose only interest in sex and women is to objectify and make money from them, then it is hardly surprising that men (and women) are led to believe that such images of ‘freedom’ are liberating.
Recently, I had an informal conversation with the organiser of the pageant, Lobsang Wangyal, who jokingly introduced himself to me as someone who doesn’t smoke or drink, but does two other things which are ’email and female’. Wangyal seems like a popular, charming, and driven man who is also the editor of an online publication, Tibet Sun. However, when I pressed him on his motives for the contest, he justified it as a ‘confidence-building’ exercise for Tibetan women (seemingly oblivious to the fact that it puts quite a strict age-range, marital status, and procreative history on that ‘confidence’ development!).
“There was also some suggestion that it is ‘sexually liberating’ for Tibetan women to parade publicly in swimsuits in a society where even wearing a miniskirt is a source of probation.”
There was also some suggestion that it is ‘sexually liberating’ for Tibetan women to parade publicly in swimsuits in a society where even wearing a miniskirt is a source of probation. While I agree that women should be able to wear what they want without condemnation, the fact that he (and many others) see ‘wearing a miniskirt’ as liberating demonstrates how their notion of liberation is heavily influenced by neo-liberal patriarchy.
Other justifications were that the women participated willingly, and that it was a source of entertainment that brought Tibetan people together in a place where there was little else to see or do. While this may well be true, it is not a sufficient justification for something which, as it currently stands, is sexist and disempowering. For example, when I attended the event in 2007, I was troubled to see how the audience openly mocked and spoke about the female contestants and the hostility shown towards them. If this was part of the ‘entertainment factor’ then it was depressingly misogynist in its nature.
Feminist objections to beauty contests are well documented and summarised well here by Object, the UK-based organisation who recently protested against the Miss World Finals in London, November 2011:
‘We have nothing against women who choose to take part in beauty pageants. However, we would say that the issue is not as simple as one of individual choice. The mainstreaming of beauty pageants has an impact on all women. The idea that it is okay to judge women on the basis of their appearance and that there is one objective beauty that women can be measured against, influences the way that all of us feel about ourselves as women and the way that men view and treat women. ‘
So there is nothing unique to Tibetans about this brand of sexism. However, there is some element of truth in what Samdhong Rinpoche said about it appearing to be ‘un-Tibetan’ and ‘un-Buddhist’. There is a feeling, although it may be part of a romantic ‘Shangri-la’ myth, that Tibetan culture is steeped in Buddhist values and principles and so does not sexually objectify women and respects them as equals in terms of being a human being.
That said, Western Tibetan Buddhist female practitioner and academic, June Campbell, has challenged this romantic and self-preserving notion; exposing the sexual exploitation and objectification even within the Tibetan Buddhist monastic system itself.
So what does the current Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay, think of the contest? I requested an official quote from his office but received no reply.
Here in Dharamshala, it was difficult to find a Tibetan woman to publicly criticise the competition, even though many agreed privately that the contest was not genuinely empowering. The reasons for that are complex, as Tsering Dolkar eloquently stated in her essay Tibetan Women:
“Tibetan society is a patriarchal society and like other similar societies women are mostly at the receiving end. However, the scale on which we measure women’s rights have been influenced by what is considered “not right” in other cultures, international standards. Accordingly, we pride ourselves on being ahead of backward practices since we overlook the fact that international norms and advocacy is a general umbrella and in fact, many discriminatory practices exist in forms that are unique to the context of that particular society. ”
“These practices and outlook are often submerged into our consciousness and subconscious. Moreover the coping mechanisms that we have built over centuries against such practices help naturalize it to a point where we fail to identify it as discriminatory and thus we become victims of internalized oppression. These overt and covert beliefs, practices, are in Buddhist principles a transgression on the potential of mi lus rinpoche, the precious human life. ”
The reticence of Tibetan women to publicly express their disagreement with the contest is not that surprising either. As Dolkar herself states: “Comments against Tibetan cultural practices and belief system are misconstrued as a threat, especially in diaspora where we have taken great pains to preserve our cultural identity.”
Also, some Tibetans I spoke to appeared to have been overly influenced by western patriarchal distortions of feminism as ‘anti-men’, including Dolkar herself.
In 2010, a male Tibetan intellectual, Tenzin Nyinjey, also wrote an article about women’s emancipation in ‘Will the Real Tibetan Woman please stand up?‘. He argued that:
‘There’s no disputing the fact that Tibetan women are not as free and independent as those in the West. But, in comparison to their counterparts in India and China, Tibetan women’s status is a lot better; in short, they have more freedom and rights than those enjoyed by women in these countries. One important reason could be Tibetan Buddhism, which, theoretically at least, preached love, care, and empathy, not just to fellow humans, but also to all other sentient beings as well.’
Although Nyinjey’s article tends to focus on the sexual liberation of women, the author himself states that this was his first attempt to write something on this topic and he would have written it with a wider perspective today.
In terms of the contest itself, one Tibetan woman living in the States (who asked to remain anonymous) told me that: “What is extremely disturbing about this contest is that, the objective of the contest and the execution are poles apart. The definition of Miss Tibet, that represents Tibetan woman all around the world, is stereotyped . This contest, in no way, projects the real Tibetan woman, and continues to succumb itself to the conventional norms of any other beauty contest.”
“I have first-hand witnessed how many bright young girls are socialised subconsciously to overvalue their self-worth based on their physical appearance. And this is wrong on so many levels.”
Tenzin Seldon, 23, the first Tibetan American Rhodes Scholar who was raised in Dharamshala and recently graduated from Stanford, explained that: “I have seen that it does provide a large-scale platform for women (specifically, contestants) to self-express, receive recognition for their many talents, personally and professionally develop, and increase their self-esteem/confidence. At the same time, having worked with young children for years now, I have first-hand witnessed how many bright young girls are socialised subconsciously to overvalue their self-worth based on their physical appearance. And this is wrong on so many levels. I hope that we as a conscious society take every step to ensure that physical appearance and semi-sexualised adult mannerisms are not the only factors that play into judging the female or male contestants.”
I was unable to get an official quote from the Tibetan Women’s Association, although a TWA member of staff told me that in 2002, the organiser had approached the TWA for a support letter which they had provided on the basis that they thought it would be a platform for the women and to represent Tibet as a country.
Ironically, one of the few public Tibetan feminists is Jamyang Kyi, a woman living in occupied and heavily censored Tibet, who was detained in the aftermath of protests that swept across Tibet in March 2008. During her detention she wrote a book, “Mixture of Snow and Rain, Joy and Sorrow of Women”, (za mo’i skyid sdug gangs ma char), the first feminist critique of Tibetan society, which is widely influenced by Western feminist writers.
The book is filled with her observations of the treatment of women in Tibetan society, where wives are treated no better than servants who attend only to household chores. Kyi questions why it is that while a monk enters a house, automatically a higher seat is offered, but when a man enters a room even a nun has to give her seat for the man. She asks Tibetan women to question if they were just born to be “only housewives” and how the Tibetans can fight for justice when injustice is perpetrated against women in their own community.
Scandal has also dogged the event. In 2011, there were accusations from the contestants that the organiser had cheated on the result and when confronted with this on Australian television, he bizarrely stated that the ‘judges’ mark sheet’ was ‘stolen’ in the night; also revealing that 75% of the judging is in his power. Dolma, one of those contestants, (who was told by Wangyal to ‘get lost’) subsequently stated that ‘Miss Tibet is not empowering to women’ and ‘the only way it could have any value is if it were run by a woman’.
Is there a way to continue the more ‘constructive’ aspects of the contest without it being sexist and patriarchal?
So what is the answer here? Is there a way to continue the more ‘constructive’ aspects of the contest without it being sexist and patriarchal? Ways forward could include the organiser (ideally a woman) removing the ‘Miss’, taking out the swimsuit section, having an open age range and allowing married women and mothers to apply. This would immediately change the narrow conception of ‘beauty’ to one which is more ‘Buddhist’ and about valuing women in other ways than youth and so-called ‘purity’. As a libertarian and pro-sex feminist, it is not that beauty contests should be banned altogether. However, they could be made into something much more representative of what Linda Wolf calls ‘full woman‘.
This post was first published here.
Pic credit: Image of a beauty pageant winner via Shutterstock.
Adele is a writer and activist on feminism, gender, culture, religion and human rights. She
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