Is Harnaaz’s Victory Ours? Or Does It Not Mean Very Much After All?

While Harnaaz Sandhu's victory at the Miss Universe pageant reflects her hard work and ability, is it really a 'victory' for Indian women?

While Harnaaz Sandhu’s victory at the Miss Universe pageant reflects her hard work and ability, is it really a ‘victory’ for Indian women?

The 70th Miss Universe pageant was held on 12th December 2021 in Eilat, Israel. Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu, a 21-year-old woman from Punjab claimed the crown.

News channels, articles, celebrities, all congratulated Sandhu and celebrated, as the Miss Universe title came back to India after 21 long years.

This is indeed a remarkable feat for Sandhu who as a young woman from Chandigarh competed against 80 contestants on a global stage to achieve this teenage dream of hers.

She has been pursuing a career in modelling and acting since the age of 17 while also completing her education. Currently pursuing a masters degree in public administration, Sandhu has spoken openly about her school days wherein she was bullied and body shamed for being ‘too thin’.

Believing in her uniqueness and her beauty has, according to her, helped her reach where she is today.

But what does this victory of Sandhu’s mean to India?

I would argue that it doesn’t mean much. A lot has changed in the world in the 70 years that this pageant has been going on for but sadly, the pageant hasn’t evolved to adapt to these changes.

It continues to put women through the scrutiny of harsh beauty standards that perpetuate body dysmorphia and have little to no room for diversity. In a time when the youth is actively calling out the racism and sexism that these beauty standards are laced with, the Miss Universe pageant that accepts women of only one body type, having a certain height, has inevitably come to seem regressive and irrelevant.

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However, celebrities across industries, as well as Sandhu herself, have endorsed her victory as a victory for India. While there might be countless Indians eager to take pride in her achievement, who are the Indians that identify with her, feel inspired by her or represented in the world by her? Apart from wearing a sachet that bears the country’s name on it, how are these women truly representing their countries, their people, their culture?

For most young girls and women in India these beauty queens or the Bollywood heroines they go on to become set unattainable standards of beauty and fashion. Seeing the evident connection between their extraordinary physical appearances and the success and recognition they receive; ordinary women are often left feeling dejected and hopeless about their own self-worth.

Women are made to feel burdened by the pressures of beauty from a very young age and they spend their entire lives either fighting through these pressures or fighting despite them. These unforgiving standards of fairness, height, weight etc. that leave most Indian women feeling inadequate, be it in the professional world or their personal lives, are the very ones that stages like the Miss Universe subject women to.

Yes, it is her victory, but it does not represent the struggle of most…

If an Indian woman emerges victorious on such a stage, it represents her own capabilities, hard work and journey to meet those standards but it does not represent the struggle of those women who live each day under the tyranny of these standards that are impossibly out of their reach.

Alok Vaid-Menon, a transgender rights advocate, explains how South Asian femininity has been subjected to the standard of what white men have told white women to be. Platforms such as Miss Universe are an unabashed celebration of this very systemic oppression of diverse concepts of beauty and self-expression by patriarchal-Eurocentric standards of beauty.

Although the talk around representation these days has managed to assert its undeniable importance, people often lack a meaningful understanding of the concept. A mere display of people from diverse communities should not count as representation. We have to realize that the kind of token representation that happens in contests like the Miss Universe caters solely to the western audience.

The Miss Universe pageant showcases a façade of allowing for diversity and upholding the motto of global unity. However, the mere fact that women from countries across the world come together to compete for this title hardly achieves these goals.

The whole pageant is constructed around Western notions of beauty and fashion, where diversity gets reduced to a mere fetish. This is evident in the National Costume round that requires the women to wear traditional attires from their respective countries. More often than not this leads to appropriation of communities due to an exaggerated and unnecessarily glamorous portrayal of their culture.

I read comments on social media about Harnaaz Sandhu being the first Punjabi Sikh woman to win such a title, but her speeches, videos, captions etc. are all only filled with nationalistic pride and don’t reflect her heritage. In the current climate of tension between Punjabi farmers and the Central government, global icons such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg have showed solidarity with the farmers, but Sandhu can be seen waving the Indian flag and saying ‘Chak de phatte India’ right after winning the title, (devoid of any true connection to her Punjabi or Sikh identity).

I think it’s time we stopped seeking pride and a sense of identity or recognition in such perfunctory representations and demanded more meaningful expressions and depictions of both, our identities and our issues.

Image credits ET Canada video

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Mrinalini is a part time law student and a full time raging feminist, who's constantly on the look out for fruitful ways to channel her anger at society. read more...

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