Jakarta, Indonesia, May 6--Miss Indonesia has glossy black hair and a law degree, smiles constantly, and talks about helping children. In many ways, she is the ideal Miss Universe contestant.

But Artika Sari Devi faces one major obstacle in competing in the Miss Universe pageant May 30-wearing a swimsuit. To Islamic clerics and many others, an Indonesian Muslim woman showing bare skin would be a public slap against Islam and a national embarrassment.

"No way," exclaimed Monik, a 9-year-old girl who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. "It's porno. You can't have that in Islam."

The debate may seem frivolous--especially in Indonesia, with its rampant prostitution and, in certain quarters, an anything-goes attitude. But the controversy over whether Miss Indonesia should wear a swimsuit shows the growing pains of the world's most populous Muslim country since the fall of a dictator in 1998.

For Artika, her family, and the women who have pushed for years to send an official Indonesian contestant to Miss Universe, this issue represents women's empowerment and a chance to increase tourism in the country. They point to countries such as Egypt and Turkey, which send contestants to Miss Universe without problems.

"Many Muslim countries have joined the pageant," said Artika, 25. "My family doesn't even think it's a problem."

This is hardly the first time a beauty contest has run up against conservative Muslims, who believe women always should dress modestly. Most international pageants require women to wear a swimsuit, either a one-piece or a bikini.

The Miss Bangladesh contest was canceled in 1998 after Islamic group protested. The prospect of a Miss World pageant in Nigeria led to riots sparked by Muslims that killed at least 215 people in 2002. An Afghan-American woman who wore a red bikini in the Miss Earth contest in 2003 was threatened with criminal prosecution if she ever returned to her homeland.

Since the fall of military dictator Suharto, who frowned on many expressions of Islam, many people have turned to Islam personally and politically.

More women wear modest clothing and cover their hair. More men attend Friday prayers. Fringe groups have waged violence in the name of Islam.

The new freedoms also have led to something else. Magazines picture scantily clad women, something not seen under the Suharto regime. Nightclubs feature dancers in bikinis and prostitutes in backrooms. Best-selling books describe tales of bizarre sex in Indonesia. Transvestites--called "lady-boys" here--perform drag shows and select their own Miss Indonesia.

The contradictions are everywhere. Government censors still try to ban movies and books objectionable to Islam--the 2004 Indonesian movie "Kiss Me Quick" was banned after a popular Islamic cleric objected to the title, although the movie featured only one chaste kiss.

But somehow a movie called "Virgin" made its way into theaters in November. In that movie, three girls struggle with teenage life in Jakarta. One takes pictures of the girls' breasts with her cell phone camera. Another sells her virginity so she can buy a cell phone and clothes. All this, in the first 10 minutes of the movie.

By the end, a moral of sorts becomes obvious: The remaining virgin has the only happy life.

Compared with that face of Indonesia, a beauty queen wearing a swimsuit might not merit much attention. The public ire of the clerics has focused on Artika--not the sex books, not the prostitutes, not the lady-boys--in large part because she is a woman on an international stage.

"There's nothing wrong with her wearing a swimsuit in her room or relaxing in private," said Fauzan Al-Anshary, the Jakarta head of the Indonesian Mujahedeen Council, which has protested Indonesia's participation in the international beauty pageant. "But if it's in public, that will give rise to bad things or crimes."

Women in Indonesia have rebelled in the past. In the early 1980s, Miss Indonesia winners tried to quietly compete in the Miss Universe contest, skipping publicity photos and staying out of the media spotlight as much as possible. And in 1996, Miss Indonesia wore a swimsuit at the international pageant, although reports differed on whether she was competing or observing. After that, Suharto formally prohibited any Indonesian woman from appearing in any international beauty competition.

This year, the Miss Indonesia Foundation has tried to win over public opinion before the Miss Universe pageant. In the next two weeks, Artika will decide whether she will compete in the international contest in Thailand.

"We are very optimistic, but we have to be very careful," said Wardiman Djojonegoro, foundation chairman. "This is why we'll decide at the last minute."

Artika has worn a swimsuit, even a bikini, since she was 3 years old. Her mother sewed her first one. She grew up on a small island of white sand beaches in the archipelago of Indonesia, and she eventually became a champion in Jet Ski competitions. Artika, who prays every day, said she sees no conflict between Islam and a bathing suit.

"Taking part in the Miss Universe contest is a great way to show what Indonesia really is," she said.

She was an accidental beauty pageant winner, tricked into competing in her island's pageant by her mother, who called her at college and said her father was sick. She went home and her mother, who had deceived her about her father's illness, told her about the pageant. Although Artika initially resisted, unwilling to wear makeup every day, she eventually agreed and won her local pageant.

At the Miss Indonesia pageant last August, she was one of 36 contestants. The pageant also featured an appearance by Miss Egypt, who competed in the 2004 Miss Universe pageant. Miss Universe was another special guest. The messages were clear: Islam and Miss Universe were not mutually exclusive, and Miss Indonesia belonged on the same stage as Miss Universe.

The Miss Indonesia contestants each wore two dresses--one a traditional dress, one a ball gown--but no swimsuits. The contestants answered questions on everything from eternal love to world conflict.

When her name was announced as the winner, Artika smiled widely. "God is great," she said.

But the audience members' favorite contestant was someone else, more telling about the person who Indonesians believed represented them. The only woman wearing a modest head scarf - the first in the history of the pageant--won more viewer votes than anyone else.
more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad