The first internationally-recognised Miss Iraq beauty contest in more than 40 years was supposed to present a gentler, softer side to a country whose name has become synonymous with violence and bloodshed.
Instead, organisers are facing an angry backlash from religious hardliners and conservative tribal leaders who say such pageants are un-Islamic and threaten public morality.
At least two young women have pulled out of the contest after receiving death threats. Organisers have dropped the swimsuit section of the competition and postponed the televised finale in an attempt to deflect some of the criticism.
However, the organisers and most contestants, backed by many ordinary Iraqis, remain determined to press ahead with an event they see as marking a step towards normalcy in a society still deeply divided and traumatised 12 years after the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
“There are many indications that Iraq is finished, but such contests give hope that life in Iraq goes on,” said Senan Kamel, the pageant’s spokesman and one of its judges.
Kamel said organisers had tried to tone down or adapt aspects of the contest out of respect for the taboos and sensibilities of a conservative Muslim country which frowns on the public display of women’s bodies.
“We deliberately organised the competition according to standards appropriate to Iraqi society to prove to the world that Iraq is a civilised country with a civic soul and a spirit of life,” he said.
For example, swimsuits have been replaced with a more conservative outfit, though a ban on Islamic headscarves remains, in keeping with the protocol of Western pageants.
“If we don’t stick to the standards, we will not receive approval to participate in international competitions, but for sure we are not at the stage of wearing bathing suits,” said Kamel.
The pageant’s televised finale, originally set for Oct. 1, has been moved back to at least December after threats by tribal leaders opposed to young women from their families taking part.
Such gestures have failed to appease the naysayers.
A pro-Shia Muslim television channel warned this month that the event would corrupt public morals and “create a base culture while our people face the danger of terrorism”.
It accused the organisers of being Freemasons, a loaded insult in the Middle East where the secretive, fraternal organisation is widely seen as pro-Zionist and hostile to Islam.
Beauty pageants have steadily lost their appeal in Western countries, where many see them as demeaning to women and as a throwback to a more sexist era, but in Iraq they can bring hopes for social change and greater openness.
Under Saddam Hussein’s secular rule, nightclubs and alcohol were available and clerics had little say in public policy.
Since a US-led invasion toppled him in 2003, liberals have been squeezed out as violence between the ascendant Shi’ite Muslim majority and minority Sunnis fragments the country along sectarian lines and fuels religious radicalism and intolerance.
A third of Iraq is now controlled by Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim militants who believe women must be fully covered or face harsh punishment, including death.
Shia Iran’s backing for powerful militias fighting Islamic State has raised concerns that Iraq is moving towards a theocracy.
Baghdad’s Shia-led government, formed last year with backing from Iran and the United States, has so far steered clear of the controversy over the beauty pageant.
The outcry has not discouraged Miss Iraq contestant Lubna Hameed, a 21-year-old university student from Baghdad, who said she hoped to serve as a role model for Iraqi women.
“God willing, I will try to ignore (the criticism) because it is an honour to represent my country Iraq,” she told Reuters after a screening interview at the studios of Al Mada television station which is hosting the pageant.
In similarly defiant vein, Hamsa Khalid, an 18-year-old high school student, said hostility would not deter her from taking part, saying the message she hoped to deliver as Miss Iraq could be summed up in one word: “Peace”.
Wanted: “A real ambassador”
The first and last time Iraq participated in a major international beauty pageant was in 1972 when Wijdan Burhan Al Deen represented the country at the Miss Universe contest.
Iraqi social clubs have since hosted occasional contests, but by widening the applicant pool and registering with the government, organisers of this Miss Iraq contest hope the winner will once again qualify for prestigious international pageants.
They plan to send representatives to competitions in Egypt and Thailand. Judges are currently whittling down an applicant pool of 50 finalists to 10.
The contestants will receive instruction in etiquette and public speaking and will volunteer to help some of the three million Iraqis displaced by fighting between the army and Islamic State.
Some Iraqis said they were disheartened by the controversy over the pageant.
“We are glad to see more things like this. We Iraqis have been deprived of many things. Many young people are migrating. People are not comfortable here,” said Ali, a 21-year-old soldier, at a Baghdad restaurant.
“These are people who do not want Iraq to do well, to improve. These people want to go backwards.”
Contestants hail from across Iraq, including Mosul, the northern city seized by Islamic State in 2014.
Pageant spokesman Kamel said that, contrary to accusations that it is undermining traditional values, the contest aimed to take a first step towards revitalising Iraq’s cultural scene, once one of the most dynamic in the Middle East.
“We are searching for a personality to represent Iraq, a woman to be a real ambassador”, he said.