The kind of issues that lead to outrage in a country says a lot about it. In Pakistan, it’s not violence against women or rampant child abuse or lack of justice or lack of equality that will have the morally righteous clutching their pearls but a beauty pageant. Yes, a beauty pageant is what is important enough to get the caretaker prime minister to take note of the matter. A beauty pageant is apparently more important than the almost daily stories of violence against women and children. A beauty pageant is what threatens Pakistan’s morality. Case in point is a small little storm in an overflowing teacup that took place a few days back. The issue: a Pakistani woman all set to participate in the Miss Universe contest for the first time. The issue took on – as such issues do – a life of its own and eventually both the caretaker prime minister and the caretaker information minister had to ‘take note’ and clarify that the Pakistan government had nothing to do with any Pakistani going to the event that will be held in November.
Policing women’s choices is nothing new in the country. We have seen everyone from politicians to clerics to educationsists moralizing over women’s clothes, their rights, their duties. It may not then be wrong to say that this was a reaction foretold in many ways. While beauty pageants like Miss World and Miss Universe (which is said to be more than 70 years old) have been going on for years now and have received a fair share of criticism, that critique has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with women’s body image issues, the standards of beauty women are held to and the impossible unrealistic expectations of women being objectified not as humans but as props. That is legitimate critique and it would be a shame if any generation of women did not question such events. That said, none of the critiques can possibly justify calling for bans and blocks on events or persons going to such events, regardless of their problematic undertones.
When outrage leads to calls for shutting down anything – whether film or drama or even a beauty pageant – that is a sign of an unhealthy and skewed debate. Pakistan already has a power imbalance between those who take it upon themselves to make the country more of a nanny state and those that are yearning for some sense of freedom of expression. A beauty pageant – with all its inherent contradictions and problems – may not be appetizing to many, but is not the end of the world. The real question is: when will Pakistani women’s bodies be stopped being used as a battleground for opposing ideologies? Perhaps a little less outrage over such matters and a little more over the fact that people are taking their children out of school because they can’t afford to educate them could be a start?