"Miss Palestine" Hopefuls Sent Home 

No point blaming Israeli occupation — the contest faced its strongest opposition inside the West Bank

RAMALLAH, West Bank — It was never going to be an easy sell. But when the Ramallah authorities ordered the indefinite postponement of the West Bank's first-ever Miss Palestine contest just days before the final, there was a sense of inevitability about it.

Speaking at her fashion company's Ramallah office just days earlier, organizer Salwa Yusef, 38, had quietly dismissed the difficulties. "We told everyone, 'give us a chance, and then you can criticize.'"

Now, it's not clear if they'll even get that chance.

Officially, the governor in the bustling Palestinian town of Ramallah canceled the pageant because the final coincided with the one-year anniversary of Israel's offensive into Gaza last December, which cost up to 1,400 Palestinian lives.

The real reason is rather more problematic. While there was some staunch opposition from religious Muslim quarters, officials say privately that they sensed a strong local resistance to the pageant, viewed as a frivolous undertaking when Palestinians are struggling daily under an Israeli occupation and peace talks have stalled.

"It's ordinary people," said Firas Obeid, a Ramallah-based journalist, who also works for the Palestinian Authority's Culture Ministry. "They don't accept the idea. Perhaps in another era, they'd accept it. But people feel depressed and it doesn't make sense to go ahead with this event."

Some 200 Palestinian girls applied to take part in Miss Palestine — vying for a 10,000 shekel (approximately $2,600) prize, a car and a trip to Turkey.

The number was whittled down to 58.

Twenty-six of those were Israeli Arabs — Palestinians with Israeli citizenship — while the remaining 32 came from the West Bank. Gaza, which remains under Israeli blockade, did not field any contestants.

From the off, the competition was beset with difficulties. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority refused to participate or give any financial backing, limiting itself only to tacit support of the contest.

Meanwhile, several Miss Palestine hopefuls were forced to pull out of the competition amid family pressure — often from male relatives, who balked at the idea of their daughters appearing scantily-clad on stage.

While some of that opposition was diluted after the organizers promised the girls would not model swimsuits, the no-shows continued.

At a semifinal well-attended by the press earlier this month, only four girls of the expected 12 turned up. The organizers put a brave face on it — "there was a lot of traffic" — and hastily cobbled together a second semi to take place just a few days before the final.

Falasteen al-Remawi, a Miss Palestine hopeful who also works for Yusef at her company Trip Fashion, says many of the contestants have encountered negative reactions from their friends and family.

"When I said I was taking part, all my friends said, 'this is wrong, everyone will talk about you,'" recalls Remawi, a feisty, chainsmoking 25-year-old. "But I told them I'm doing it for the women of our country."

Both Yusef and Remawi have lofty ideals in mind. For them, this pageant is about female liberation — and a return to normal life — in a society that is sharply divided in its approach to women.

Young girls attend university and walk bare-headed in downtown Ramallah and Bethlehem. In more conservative towns and villages of the West Bank, many women cover their heads, marry young and stay at home.

"From the beginning, we wanted to help ourselves," said Yusef, a diminutive and softly spoken divorcee and mother of five sons. "How can we become more liberated if we don't do anything? Everyone else is silent."

Sharpest public criticism has come from Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza Strip, and which has enforced stricter dress codes on women in recent months in Gaza, a region that is physically cut off from the West Bank by Israel.

In a statement, Hamas said such a contest "completely contradicts Palestinian values and traditions."

"Showing beautiful girls in front of the mass media and the audience while our people in Gaza are suffering ... is rejected and is considered a blind imitation of Western traditions," the statement said.

Remawi, who enjoyed a liberal upbringing in Jordan until the age of 17, insists the pageant is not anti-Islamic.

"This (contest) doesn't go against our traditions and religion," she said. "I'm a Muslim. I pray, I fast. That doesn't mean I have to wear the uniform."

Yusef insists the show will go on. She is now looking to hold the final of the beauty contest sometime in January.

But with few allies, it remains unclear if she will be able to overcome opposition to her plans.

"I'm not afraid of anything," she says defiantly, puffing on a cigarette. "The more enemies I have, the more I want to succeed."

"I think it's urgent for our society that we live normally."

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