Political rows blemish Israel's Miss Universe 2021 beauty pageant
- In the run-up to this year's "Miss Universe" beauty pageant, which is hosted by Israel, controversies cast a shadow on participating contestants.
The jury will face a tough decision on Sunday in Israel's most southern city Eilat when it's called on to decide the winner of the 70th "Miss Universe" beauty pageant.
The event to crown the successor of Andrea Maza from Mexico in a three-hour live show that includes contestants giving personal statements as well as modelling in swimsuits and evening gowns. But amid repeated calls to boycott the event due to Israeli settlement policy, this year's pageant has taken on a decisively political dimension.
Among the arrivals is the 25-year-old student Manar Nadeem Deyani from Bahrain — which normalized relations with Israel last year. Morocco is sending its winner, Kawtar Benhalima, for the first time since 1978 after normalizing ties with Israel in 2020.
Despite these nations' participation, assurances from organizers that the Miss Universe contest transcends international divisions to highlight social and global issues, several political controversies have distracted audiences from the event.
The United Arab Emirates — which also normalized ties with Israel in 2020 — had planned for its debut at the global beauty pageant in Eilat. But the country cancelled its contest to declare a national beauty queen at the last minute due to "time restrictions," and Covid-19 concerns, according to a statement on its official website.
Malaysia, a long-time Miss Universe participant, won't be at the 2021 event. Pandemic restrictions meant the country did not hold a national beauty pageant to determine a Miss Universe contestant. But some observers have said a spat between Malaysia and Israel earlier this year, which included banning Israeli athletes from participating in a squash competition in Malaysia, also played a role in the country's decision to sit out the 2021 competition.
Calls to boycott Miss Universe in protest of Israeli government policies also gained attention around the world— even in Greece, which saw a row between Rafaela Plastira, the winner of Miss World Greece 2019, and Star GS Hellas, the organization that selects the country's Miss Universe participant.
Plastira said in October she "could not go up on the stage, acting like nothing is happening when people are fighting for their lives [in Israel and Palestine]."
But last week, Star GS Hellas said Plastira was not Greece's entry in Miss Universe 2021 and "never had the blessing to represent our country." The organization added that Sofia Arapogianni was "the official Miss Universe Greece for 2021."
While South Africa did not change its entrant in the beauty pageant, the government withdrew its support for 24-year-old Lalela Mswane, who will participate despite calls to boycott the event.
Mandla Mandela — the grandson of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first Black president — was among several groups that called for a boycott of the pageant in Israel due to the "occupation and cruel treatment of Palestinians at the hands of apartheid Israel regime."
Responding to Mandela's call, 2017's Miss Universe Iraq, Sarah Idan, posted on Twitter, "All I can say is how dare you? How dare you as a man try to tell an organization for women, and women empowerment what to do," she said.
"This is an opportunity that millions of women dream of having to go on the world stage and represent their people, their nation and culture — not governments, not politics and definitely not political agendas."
Following the quarantine in Jerusalem, the contestants used several stops on their way to the southern city of Eilat for taking photos.
"Coming here has just been such a wholesome experience," Miss Morocco, Kawtar Benhalima, told The Times of Israel. "Because of the historical side of things, because I'm here experiencing Miss Universe, because I am learning every day."
However, after having posted photos and videos by using the hashtag #visitisrael, an uproar backlashed on social media.
The depicted scenes followed the tour's title, "A day in the life of a Bedouin," with the beauty contestants wearing traditional Palestinian dresses and making sweets. Outrage on social media addressed the oblivion necessary to present Palestinian heritage as Israeli culture.
The online outrage has not led to physical harm in 2021, but politicizing beauty pageants had life-threatening consequences for Arab participants in the past.
In 2017, Lebanon's beauty contestant Amanda Hanna was threatened and lost her title after admitting that she had been in Israel. Sarah Idan, Iraq's 2017 winner, who opposed Mandela's boycott call, had to leave Iraq following death threats after taking a selfie with the Israeli contestant. In 2018, Iraqi beauty queen Tara Fares was killed, prompting 2015's Iraqi beauty queen Shimaa Qasim Abdulrahman to flee to Jordan.
Currently, 78 competitors are preparing for their big night on the Miss Universe stage. The final pageant will air live from Eilat, Israel, on 180 channels worldwide from midnight December 13, UTC (Israeli Standard Time: 2 am December 13).