Yesterday, it was announced that India’s Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned Miss Universe, the third Indian woman in history to ever claim the coveted title.
In her speech, Sandhu urged young people to “know that you are unique and that’s what makes you beautiful, stop comparing yourself to others.
“I believed in myself, and that’s why I’m standing here today,” she also added.
And while her win was an important one for South Asians and Sikhs all over the world, it is also important to address the underlying issues that came with this year’s contest because they affect the wider audience.
Beyond the glitz and the glamour, the pageant was riddled with controversies, primarily because it took place in Israel. As we are all aware, Israel has been the centre of attention for a long time now due to its oppression of the Palestinian people. Not only is the government systematically stealing land that they have no rights over, but it is also utilising Western values and events to appeal to the masses and in turn, cover up its human rights abuses.
And we definitely saw a twisted example of that during this year’s Miss Universe pageant when the contestants turned up in Eliat, a port town that was built on the remains of the Palestinian town Umm Al-Rashrash, to engage in the best of what Israel has to offer. I use the latter term lightly because according to social media (and history), the events that the women took part in were actually native to Palestinian culture and it’s just another aspect that was stolen from its people.
One contestant took a lot of the heat after she posted photographs highlighting her involvement. Beatrice Luigi Gomez, who represented the Philippines, shared a few snapshots on Instagram wearing traditional Palestinian clothing and preparing Palestinian dishes but passed them off as Israeli, tagging @visit_israel in the caption. She was later forced to disable the comments under all her posts as a tidal wave of backlash was hurled her way.
So far, she has failed to address the issue publicly.
However, that doesn’t mean everyone else wasn’t talking about it. Twitter was rife with opinions, with many continuing to slam the beauty queens for promoting Israel as the perfect holiday destination despite being urged to boycott the entire event.
Layth Hanbali, a freelance researcher, dedicated multiple tweets to discussing the controversy, stating that this move was “classic” of Israel.
Posting to Twitter, he said this: “The audacity of celebrating the very same culture that is being erased is classic Israel.”
He continued: “Miss Universe organisers in Israel and contestants are appropriating Palestinian culture while in ‘Israel’, including traditional Palestinian dresses and food, with zero recognition of the hundreds of generations of Palestinians who passed this cultural identity down. Needless to say, there is not even a hint to the Palestinians who have had this cultural identity suppressed, denied and stolen by Zionism.
“Even more outrageously, there is a particular focus (‘celebration’) of Bedouin culture. Bedouin communities struggle to even get villages and communities recognised. Planning permissions are rarely granted, villages are frequently destroyed. On top, utilitiy companies are prohibited from extending services to areas which do not have planning permissions.”
He then went on to discuss how this was an effort to “erase Bedouin culture and their entire existence,” before adding that “engaging in whitewash projects legitimises Israel’s erasure of Palestinian and Bedouin culture. Just don’t do it.”
One woman went one step further and defied her government’s advice to boycott the event. South Africa’s Lalela Mswane was urged by her country to withdraw from the event due to the controversies surrounding Israel. However, in an exclusive (and very tug-at-the-heartstrings biased) interview with the Jerusalem Post, she emphasised that she would have only regretted it in the future.
“My soul would not have been at peace if I had skipped it,” she said.
Her decision was not a popular one, that’s for sure. Inkosi Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, spoke out, explaining why everyone, but especially South Africans, should disregard the event.
“There is nothing beautiful about occupation, brutality and institutionalised discrimination against the Palestinian people,” he said, later adding that it was a “crime against humanity.”
His grandfather was also outspoken about the issue during his time.
We, as a society that believes in justice, need to continue to condemn Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians so that one day, they will be free from persecution. But until then, Israel? I don’t know her.