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Beauty pageant offers respite from grim realities - but leaves conservatives fuming.
By Kazbek Tsurayev and Leila Baisultanova in Grozny (CRS No. 342, 01-June-06)
The election of “Miss Chechnya” last week delighted some as a sign that the war-torn republic was putting its worst times behind it, while others were outraged at the contest, calling it an offence against Islam and a public relations stunt.
The beauty pageant was held on May 28 in the concert hall of the republic’s State Philharmonic Society. Nineteen of the 300 contestants aged 15 to 24 years were selected to take part in the final of “Chechen Beauty 2006”.
“We want Chechnya to stop being associated with bearded men carrying guns,” said the Chechen government’s official press release introducing the competition. “It’s no secret that women in the republic are being driven into the background. Now a beautiful girl will become the symbol of our country and we’ll show that we are no worse than other states.”
The press release stressed Chechen Beauty 2006 was not just a beauty contest, but an “attempt to find a girl, who would be a model for young people, who will advocate spiritual values, a healthy life-style, culture and kindness.”
However, many Chechens disapproved of a public demonstration of female beauty, which they said was at variance with Islamic traditions. The organisers invited representatives of the republic’s Muslim clergy to attend a rehearsal, to confirm the decency of the event. At the clergy’s request, the jury comprised only women and representatives of cultural intelligentsia, while all the contestants were unmarried, and there was no traditional parade in bikinis.
Nonetheless, one of the contestants, Roza Khalayeva, withdraw from the competition on the insistence of her relatives. Another told the ORT television channel, “I spent so much time trying to persuade them to let me take part! They would have never agreed, if I hadn’t told them that the contest was supported by the government and aimed to strengthen traditions of our homeland.”
The finalists sang, performed national dances and showed off their knowledge of customs, traditions and culture of the Chechen people. Russian entertainment stars entertained the audience during the intervals between the entries. The popular Russian actor Dmitry Kharatian presented the show.
The contest was won by Zamira Jabrailova, a 15-year-old schoolgirl. In addition to the title of “Miss Chechen Beauty”, she won a Toyota car, which she is too young to drive.
Zamira won loud applause by saying she began her day with a prayer. Viewers learnt she was a tenth form pupil at a school in Grozny, that she danced in the Vainakh ensemble and has one younger brother. Her mother brought up the two of them on her own, as her father, a policeman, was killed in a shootout several years ago. In her final speech, the winner displayed her appreciation of the political aspect of the event saying, “I thank my mother and I thank our late president Akhmat Kadyrov for stopping this war.”
Two other 15-year-olds, sisters Fatima and Janora Khazuyeva, were runners-up and were presented with a Zhiguli car by the Kadyrov Foundation - founded to honour the late pro-Moscow leader - which was one of the organisers of the event. All the other contestants won some kind of prize, either a car, a trip abroad or jewellery.
This was actually not Chechnya’s first beauty contest. In 1988, a competition was held by the now defunct Komsomol (Young Communist) Committee and won by an ethnic Ingush from Grozny, Leila Fargieva. And at the turn of the 20th century, Dara Chermoyeva, the Chechen-born daughter of an oilman, won a beauty contest in Paris.
The organisers gave a commitment that Zamira, along with other girls from Islamic republics, will be allowed not to wear a swimming costume when she takes part in Russian beauty contests.
However, the clean image of the contest was marred by reports of what happened afterwards at the post-contest dinner in a restaurant in the town of Gudermes.
The most detailed account appeared in Moscow’s Kommersant newspaper. It reported that 29-year-old Chechen prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the late president Akhmad Kadyrov, who was seated next to presenter Dmitry Kharatian, declared that “ Chechen women were the most beautiful women and should be showered with diamonds and gold. And he did keep the promise. When the contestants came out to dance the [Caucasian dance] lezghinka with his security men, Kadyrov’s assistant rained down thousand-rouble and hundred-dollar notes upon the dancers.”
Kommersant’s reporter thought he saw at least 30,000 dollars fall on the marble floor.
The authorities have made no comment on the allegations.
The idea of a beauty contest was initially strongly contested by the Muslim clergy of Chechnya. “The Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Chechen Republic has expressed its negative attitude towards the contest many times,” said first deputy mufti Daud Selmurzayev. “A beauty contest in the republic conducted in spite of the protests by the clergy of Chechnya undermines our customs, contradicts Chechen moral principles and centuries-old traditions.”
However, the clerics changed their minds after talks with the government.
Views on the event in Chechnya have been sharply divided, with some Chechens describing it as a breath of fresh air after years of conflict, while others saying it mocked national traditions.
“Our women have had so little to be joyful about in the last few years,” said Grozny resident Maret Murtazalieva. “Reconstruction of the city has begun, the central avenue is now being worked on, and we are already happy. A beauty contest is a joy for, above all, our women and girls.”
Idris Amayev of the non-governmental organisation Public Development Institute disagreed, calling the competition a “funeral of Chechen traditions”. “A consumerist attitude toward women is being imposed in Chechnya, as if they were horses being led out for a show,” he said.
Ziyavdi Chadiev, a second-year student at the Oil Institute in Grozny, was critical too. “We have national traditions of our own, we are Muslims,” he said. “Our girls have never walked on podiums. I’m against this, though if it were a contest from across the Caucasus, I think it would be different.”
Kazbek Tsurayev and Leila Baisultanova are correspondents for the newspaper Chechenskoye Obschestvo in Grozny.
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