Rarely has the Middle East found itself facing a shortage of international crises. The Syrian and Yemeni Civil Wars continue apace, and Iran and the United States seem no closer to bridging the simmering disputes that have led to the ongoing cold war between them. In Iraq and Lebanon, meanwhile, protests against the countries’ shaky governments hearken back to the so-called Arab Spring and promise to reshape the nature of power politics in two strategic Middle Eastern capitals. The competition for political and social influence over the region appears as fluid as ever.

Amid all this headline-grabbing drama, a quieter, stranger trend in the region has received much less attention from the news media: the politicization of Middle Eastern beauty pageants and, in a handful of cases, the direct persecution of beauty queens. Beauty contests have evolved into yet another front in the battle between the sociopolitical forces governing the future of the Middle East.

The extent of this little-known phenomenon became apparent after a bizarre episode in October in which Iranian beauty queen Bahareh Zare Bahari sought asylum in the Philippines. Bahari, whom Iran attempted to extradite on what she described as fabricated charges, claimed that she would face execution if deported because of her activism in support of both women’s rights and Reza Pahlavi, the son of the divisive shah overthrown in the Iranian Revolution. In November, the Philippine authorities granted Bahari’s request for asylum after a three-week wait.

As exceptional as the Bahari affair may look at first glance, beauty queens in other countries in the Middle East have faced similar challenges and sometimes worse fates.

Iraq has offered the most startling examples of Middle Eastern beauty queens facing retaliation for their work. In October 2018, gunmen murdered popular Iraqi beauty queen and model Tara Fares in Baghdad following the deaths of three other prominent feminists under what Iraqi investigators deemed comparable circumstances. 

Shayma Qassim Miss Iraq 2015 Facebook photo

Shayma Qassim, Miss Iraq 2015 (Facebook photo)

Iraqi beauty queen, Shimaa Qasim Abdulrahman, fled Iraq for Jordan that month for fear of meeting the same fate.

Yet another Iraqi beauty queen, Shimaa Qasim Abdulrahman, fled Iraq for Jordan that month for fear of meeting the same fate, confessing in an interview with a Kurdish news agency, “The killing of this many people scared me.”

The difficulties that Iranian and Iraqi beauty queens have encountered may come as little surprise in light of how women’s rights have deteriorated in their homelands. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has observed the extent to which “women’s rights are severely restricted in Iran, to the point where women are even forbidden from watching men’s sports in stadiums”; Iran only released 4,000 seats to female Iranian fans of soccer because FIFA required it to. As to women’s rights in Iraq, HRW has noted that “women have few legal protections to shield them from domestic violence.”

In more repressive countries, beauty queens are fighting what can sometimes seem a losing battle against right-wing politics and social conservatism. Malak Youssef, a Saudi beauty queen, had to withdraw from Miss Arab World after a wave of backlash from ultraconservative Saudis on social media in 2017. The incident raised questions about the effectiveness of Saudi efforts to expand women’s rights.

Even in countries upholding themselves as relative bastions of liberalism, Middle Eastern beauty queens have often suffered retribution for expressing opinions at odds with their governments’ domestic or foreign policies. In 2017, organizers of a beauty pageant stripped the Turkish beauty queen Itir Esen of her crown after she tweeted a crude joke about Turkey’s 2016 coup d’état. The same year, Lebanese beauty queen Amanda Hanna also lost her title after the revelation that she had visited Israel, given Lebanon’s all-encompassing ban on travel to the Jewish state.

The Iraqi–American model Sarah Idan, who won Miss Iraq in 2017, had to leave Iraq after receiving death threats for taking a selfie with her Israeli counterpart.

The state of Arab–Israeli relations has damaged the career of at least one other Middle Eastern beauty queen. The Iraqi–American model Sarah Idan, who won Miss Iraq in 2017, had to leave Iraq after receiving death threats for taking a selfie with her Israeli counterpart. The pair reunited when Idan traveled to Israel in 2018. For their part, Iraqi authorities have considered revoking Idan’s citizenship as punishment for her voicing support for Israel at the United Nations.

Despite the breadth of the many cultural, political, and social differences between the situations of Abdulrahman, Bahari, Esen, Fares, Hanna, Idan, and Youssef, they have all faced retaliation tied to their work as beauty queens in one form or another. Even if some of these incidents may seem to have more to do with geopolitics than with beauty pageants—as in the cases of Esen, Hanna, and Idan—the episodes speak to how politicized Middle Eastern beauty contests have become. In many ways, circumstances have transformed these beauty queens into activists.

If the politicization of beauty pageants in the Middle East has come with any benefits, they may include giving the region’s feminist beauty queens an international platform to criticize the lack of women’s rights in their homelands. Bahari used the coverage of her plight as an opportunity to tell the news media that “the women of Iran are tired of this regime that doesn’t give basic freedom,” saying of life for the country’s millions of women, “It’s like we’re in prison.”

Bahari joins the ranks of beauty queens elsewhere in the Muslim world striving to push political and social activism to their limits. In Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Middle Eastern beauty queens are also making themselves heard.

Whereas much of the Western world is debating whether beauty contests represent dated, sexist ideals in a region where women have many other means by which they can exercise freedom of expression, beauty pageants seem to be playing the opposite role in the Middle East. They have allowed Middle Eastern feminists another platform for self-expression, brought more attention to the plight of cultural icons such as Fares, and highlighted the importance of women’s rights.

For the time being, Middle Eastern beauty queens are waging an uphill battle to leave their mark on the region. If they succeed, however, they will have won a key victory for women’s rights.