Dear GoP, beauty pageants are not a national security crisis

Angry men have more power than Erica Robin. They, not her, are the ones who should stand down.
Published September 26, 2023

Most women who build a career on their looks have a problem ageing. Former actresses and models talk about how hard it is to go out in the world without men’s heads turning to look at them admiringly.

Who are you if your identity is only beauty? What is left of you when the world expunges you from the cult of youth?

These are deeper questions, but for Pakistan’s senators, parliamentarians, and religious scholars, the question is about national honour. Since Erica Robin was crowned Miss Universe Pakistan in a pageant held earlier this month in Maldives by a Dubai-based company with rights to the competition, our nation is furious.

Led by men, as is always the case in such events, this rage is about a young woman going into the world and representing her country without asking them for permission to do so.

Led by men, the anger is about Erica Robin defining Pakistan without consulting the established version of Pakistan.

Led by men, the outrage is from the custodians of Pakistan who are feeling a bit ignored.

Led by men, the fear is from those accustomed to being in control, not being in control.

Technically, Erica Robin need only be Pakistani to represent Pakistan according to the rules of the franchise.

Technically, the information minister and the lone warriors of propriety need not make clarifications on sanctioning her or not, but they did.

They went out of their way to spell out that the government did not nominate her.

They are disowning her. Yelling it from the gallery.

Misplaced priorities

Officially, this is bizarre. We have an energy crisis, a judicial crisis and an electoral crisis, but this young woman has managed to get the state and civil society to respond with a force they should ideally save only for hunger and malnutrition.

People are now drawing parallels to Malala Yousufzai and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, but whereas those two women have a cause that falls well within a human rights domain, Robin has stepped into the realm of leisure, aesthetics, and pure will.

That is unacceptable to them — wanting the stage for the sake of wanting the stage.

Instead of a simple, “Good luck Erica” or “Congratulations Ms Robin”, there is a call for arms to save our culture from the vultures.

Let us review what we mean by culture. We mean women sit somewhere between the status of a tea trolley and a domesticated animal. We mean men can cajole and even humour her, but soon she must return to her cage.

I remember wanting to be a model back when ageing was not a consideration.

Model and actress Vaneeza Ahmed visited my college in California in 2002, for the Pakistan Students Association that I was president of and arranged an event in her honour. Her poise was extraordinary, and she told me how she makes clothes look good, not the other way around and defined some modelling industry guardrails.

She blew my mind away with her smarts, her composure, and more shockingly, her boundaries.

Robin got into fashion through a similar admiration for Vaneeza Ahmed, the woman who trail-blazed when there was only a cold hell in Pakistani fashion.

I was dissuaded from getting into that line of work in my youth because I was sat down and explained the perils of defining life on mere bone structure, weight, and chiselled jawlines, especially because it has an expiry date. I was taught instead to consider expertise because that doesn’t rot till disease or death.

I went along with that wisdom, but also, I suspected that my high school worst-dressed award would chase me all my life. Slouching is my preferred power pose, and I often forget to match my shoes with any standards of acceptability. I dress for the weather and convenience. Which is why I respect how much of a gift it is to care about how a body carries clothes well. It is an extraordinary effort and expertise itself.

Models aren’t mere coat hangers; they are disciplined professionals who care about the subtleties of drape, fitting, fitness and the comfort of being in one’s skin, in a hostile world that attacks them for their colour or sadly, their fat percentage.

Modelling is an art

Erica Robin has the same trail-blazing capability, and she has put a Pakistani ethnic face on a Euro-centric world that does not represent our faces at all. She has the articulation needed to stay and thrive within her chosen domain. If anyone thinks modelling is frivolous, please watch The Devil Wears Prada. If Meryl Streep is not going to convince you that what you think you have chosen off a rack is chosen for you, then nothing can.

These men think they are choosing for women, asking them to lead an internally quiet life but there is a force coming at them, much stronger than their privilege — the need for art.

Modelling is an art. The fashion industry is art. The stitch, cross-stitch, back-stitch, hem — our local kamdani, khadi, ajrak, dari — are a simple need to make things more beautiful than they need to be. The need to be creative and all creativity needs an audience and a community. Pageants are a good place to start.

If this wasn’t an intrinsic human need, our grandmothers wouldn’t knit, our aunts wouldn’t curl their hair and our sisters wouldn’t wear khol.

No one would dress up at weddings.

There also wouldn’t be cave paintings.

And once all this pretty art is made, someone needs to make the clothes look good. Beyond cave paintings. Beyond your local weddings.

Our men, leading the torch of women’s behaviour globally, forget that they may be new to all this moral policing, and therefore may be exhausted before they win this war.

The human history is long. Anthropologically, women being told what to do is a very tiny-tiny part of human civilisation, only a few hundred years. Mostly, all people worked tribally and mostly, tribes were matriarchal. Think of the Barbie movie before Ken revolted. Think women calling the shots, all the shots, and no early man ever told a woman to fix her fig leaf. This is all very new. So calm the anger down, and consider that the problem with honour codes is that they clash against the human need to do more than necessary. They always will clash.

Control your need to do anything at all. Try doing nothing. It is noble.

Exercising moral authority

Control instead what you can, such as your own waistlines, your own control freakery and your own sphere of influence. Force is over-rated and chances are even if you manage to win this and get Robin to pull out of a pageant, you will still continue to be the man you are — grasping for attention in a world that doesn’t listen to you obediently.

In a world of obedience, people first earned their way into being obeyed.

I was provided reason to be dissuaded out of the fashion industry by the elder in my family I first respected, then believed, then obeyed.

To have authority, first, you must have moral authority. Moral authority is built on a lifetime of good conduct.

See the problem here?

There is of course the personal-is-political angle here.

Erica Robin is a Christian name. Robin’s community, only a few weeks ago, was attacked by arsonists and bigots alike in Faisalabad. Robin’s community in Pakistan has off and on been lynch mobbed. Asia Bibi was from Robin’s community. It took a lot from our nation, including a sitting governor, to have her get away with wanting to drink from the same cup as a Muslim. Intersectionality allows us to see that Erica Robin is representing more than a 20-something-year-old young woman.

To Voice Of America, Robin explains that she understands her responsibility to her nation and “would not do anything that would bring a bad name to the country.”

Erica Robin is a young woman, but I wish when she is older, she recognises that it is not her responsibility alone to carry the name of her people on her shoulders. That is a collective job that falls on our politicians, doctors, seamstresses and traffic wardens equally. Just because her profession has a camera faced at her shouldn’t make her the target of everyone’s vile commentary.

Modelling is already about walking into a universe of body-shaming and disrespect. More diverse women, not less, will make it a good and inclusive profession.

People often fail at being liked by their own nieces and co-workers but want some young woman who is a stranger to them to obey them. Where is the sense in that?

Disrobing Muslim women is an obsession in a largely white, cruel and judgmental world.

Cloaking women from Muslim-majority nations is an obsession of ours.

Both obsessions have one thing in common — they commodify women. They make her part of a collective and erase her individuality, her choices and the power of her context. Both are inhumane ways of looking at the world.

One says this is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, stereotyping it. The other demands, is this the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Between these two world views is a chasm of hate and dehumanisation towards our people. Our people are not a monolith. They are not a gender binary. Pakistanis are many, many ways of being.

In every conflict resolution, first, you have to put a face to the identity of your enemy.

Erica Robin is the norm, not the exception. She is like any other young woman her age, walking into the world, with a set of preferences. It is totally okay for her to make her own choices, good or bad. She is an adult. Her relationship with our country is the same contractual relationship that the angry men have with their country. If they are heard, so should she.

She is bridge-building.

Technically, she is merely exercising her right to offend.

Technically, they are exercising their right to be offended.

But letting men’s anger be linked to a national issue is unreasonable.

Angry men have more power than Erica Robin. They, not her, are the ones who should stand down.

Practically, however, only one of them is facing the rising sun. The rest are facing the mirror and not liking what they see, age or no age.

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