Sukaina al-Zayer is an unlikely beauty queen hopeful. She covers her
face and body in black robes and an Islamic veil, so no one can tell
what she looks like. She also admits she's a little on the plump
But at Saudi Arabia's only beauty pageant, the judges don't care
about a perfect figure or face. What they're looking for in the
quest for "Miss
is the contestant who shows the most devotion and respect for her
"The idea of the pageant is to measure the contestants' commitment
to Islamic morals... It's an alternative to the calls for decadence
in the other beauty contests that only take into account a woman's
body and looks," said pageant founder Khadra al-Mubarak.
"The winner won't necessarily be pretty," she added. "We care about
the beauty of the soul and the morals."
after the pageant opens Saturday, the nearly 200 contestants will
spend the next 10 weeks attending classes and being quizzed on
themes including "Discovering your inner strength," "The making of
leaders" and "Mom, paradise is at your feet"—a saying attributed to
to underline that respect for parents is among the faith's most
Pageant hopefuls will also spend a day at a country house with their
mothers, where they will be observed by female judges and graded on
how they interact with their mothers, al-Mubarak said. Since the
pageant is not televised and no men are involved, contestants can
take off the veils and black figure-hiding abayas they always wear
The Miss Beautiful Morals pageant is the latest example of
conservative Muslims co-opting Western-style formats to spread their
message in the face of the onslaught of foreign influences flooding
the region through the Internet and satellite television.
newly created Islamic music channel owned by an Egyptian businessman
aired an "American Idol"-style contest for religious-themed singers
this month. And several Muslim preachers have become talk-show
celebrities by adopting an informal, almost Oprah-like television
style, in contrast to the solemn clerics who traditionally appear in
Now in its second year, the number of pageant contestants has nearly
tripled from the 75 women who participated in 2008. The pageant is
open to women between 15 and 25. The winner and two runners up will
be announced in July, with the queen taking home $2,600 and other
prizes. The runners up get $1,300 each.
Last year's winner, Zahra al-Shurafa, said the contest gives an
incentive to young women and teens to show more consideration toward
tell this year's contestants that winning is not important," said
al-Shurafa, a 21-year-old English major. "What is important is
obeying your parents."
There are few beauty pageants in the largely conservative Arab
world. The most dazzling is in
the region's most liberal country, where contestants appear on
in one-piece swimsuits and glamorous evening gowns and answer
questions that test their confidence and general knowledge.
There are no such displays in ultra-strict Saudi Arabia, where until
Miss Beautiful Morals was inaugurated last year, the only pageants
were for goats, sheep, camels and other animals, aimed at
encouraging livestock breeding.
This year's event kicks off Saturday in the mainly Shiite Muslim
and mostly draws local Shiite contestants. But it's open to
anyone—and this year, 15 Sunni Muslims are participating, al-Mubarak
said. "This is a beautiful thing," she added.
There have long been tensions between the two sects in the kingdom.
Hard-liners in the Sunni majority consider Shiites infidels, and the
Shiites often complain of discrimination and greater levels of
Al-Zayer, a 24-year-old international management student, said she
signed up because she is the "spitting image" of her mother. "I'm
proud of my devotion to my parents," she said.
What does she think of Lebanon's beauty contests?
"It's a matter of cultural differences," she said. "In Saudi Arabia,
they are Islamically unacceptable."
Awsaf al-Mislim, another contestant, said if she does not win the
crown, she will have won something more important.
"I will be proud to show everyone that I competed with the others
over my devotion to my parents," the 24-year-old said.