Quota for three tribes in Arunachal pageant: Case of cross-wired activism
Beauty contests have long been debated as hotbeds of female objectification and commercial opportunism. Even in these last two years when persuasive new arguments of colour, race, plus size and body positivism got added to fundamental feminist concerns, no society or country has weaned away entirely from beauty pageantsopinion Updated: Aug 11, 2017 19:04 IST
Inner beauty and self-esteem can be your award winning virtues if you are five feet two inches tall, have passed Class 12 and belong to one of the three tribes of Lisu, Nah and Puroik.
It is not a beauteous sentence but the only way to sum up the quota system proposed for the three underprivileged tribes by the Miss Arunachal Beauty Pageant. Ahead of auditions for the 10th edition next month, the organisers of the contest have announced a direct entry by reserved quota for contestants from Lisu, Nah and Puroik minority tribes. The ethnic character of these tribes, their migration and roots in places as far as China or their history of political de-recognition followed by a deprived if restored citizenship in India makes them a very curious anthropological case study. But to offer them affirmative action via a beauty contest is a classic case of cross-wired and complicated social activism.
Arunachal Pradesh has been making a virtue out of positive discrimination. Last year, 59-year-old Hage Tado Nanya from Ziro village was crowned Mrs Arunachal. Married at 13, she participated to raise awareness against domestic violence, gender discrimination and polygamy. Many contestants in that pageant were victims of polygamy and violence.
Beauty contests have always had discrimination and commercial gain wired into their plumbing. The Miss Universe contest launched in 1952 — a year after Miss World — was a marketing stunt by Pacific Knitting Mills, a California clothing company after the winner of another rival pageant Miss America refused to wear one of its swimsuits. The point was to sell a swimsuit, not crown a woman for being’s god’s blue-eyed kid.
Such contests have long been debated as hotbeds of female objectification and commercial opportunism. They confuse the psychological self esteem of a person with her body attributes. But despite loud protests and sloganeering across the world, they have never really faded away from popular culture.
Even in these last two years when persuasive new arguments of colour, race, plus size and body positivism got added to fundamental feminist concerns, no society or country has weaned away entirely from beauty pageants.
What’s happened instead, including in India, is an improvisation of the beauty contest model. Beauty has not only become accepting of diversity but it is now outraged and activist like. The old contest model of dressing up, lining up, walking out before a jury to be judged for a set of agreed upon virtues, should have been scrapped to wipe out its inherent flaws. Instead it has been made bigger with room for the violated, the ostracised, the downtrodden, the gay, the married (that’s a separate category of contests), the physically challenged and now the tribal. There are beauty contests for incarcerated women across the world. Bom Paston Women’s Prison in Brazil holds a contest ironically titled Miss Jail whereas Lithuania’s Penal Labour Colony calls it Miss Captivity.
In India too what we now have is an alternative culture of contests that still in some form worship the body — positivism or whatever. India’s first transgender pageant Indian Super Queen was launched in 2010 by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the Mumbai-based transgender activist to reiterate the beauty and esteem of an otherwise ridiculed community. Mr Gay India, Nepal’s Ms Dalit Queen (launched in 2013) and a contest organised for visually challenged girls by Mumbai’s National Association for the Blind last year add to the list. What exactly are such contestants contesting for though is hard to define if it is not dressed up beauty?
Back to Miss Arunachal Pradesh.
The three tribes chosen via quota entry to the pageant come with a defensive explanation, which says it is to celebrate “inner beauty and raise self confidence and self esteem”. Whether self esteem is directly proportional to winning or participating in a beauty pageant has still not been proved by any scientifically designed anthropological study done with beauty queens across the world. But what is worse is creating reservation for an ideological and existential talent as vague as like inner beauty for which there are no barometers of measurement on a scale of 1 to 10.
The question we may need to address as a society is why in the first place do we need beauty contests to address societal issues like LGBT rights, or rehabilitate downtrodden tribes like the Lisu, Nah and Puroik?
Perhaps it is easier to find sponsors for events that glamourise anything — victimhood, violence, natural and cosmetic beauty or physical handicaps but hard to raise a hue and cry on personal empowerment programmes that don’t parade the dressed up body posturing to seek notice.
Shefalee Vasudev is a fashion journalist and author
The views expressed are personal