In a world where we are still trying to dismantle the stereotypical ideals placed on women, such as their value comes from what they look like, the Mrs. Arunachal “beauty pageant” out of India is an extremely big breath of fresh air. We use quotation marks because while it can be classified as such an event, there is less a focus on beauty, and more on the substantial attributes of women.
With the rise of many female empowerment and equality initiatives across India, this pageant is sure to give rural women in the Arunachal Pradesh state, in the Northeast of India, a feeling that they are valued and needed in their community. Culminating in a finale event on November 26th, the Mrs. Arunachal pageant has been holding heats across the state over the past few months and their theme is “Mother of Substance”.
The event was created by The Ngurang Learning Institute, based in Naharlagun. The institute was founded 2 years ago with the intent to empower mostly elderly rural women by helping them to read and write and realize their full potential. Along with cash prizes and a trip to Thailand for 2 for the overall winner, the institute is also offering 6 months at their adult learning center, and the opportunity to work for an NGO as a women’s empowerment spokesperson.
In a description on the website detailing the specifications for each applicant, the women are required to have a passion to help women and girls, have previous experience working for an NGO, and the best part, there are no height or figure requirements. They also encourage rape and domestic violence victims, as well as physically and mentally challenged women to apply, in order to reach parts of the population who can in turn become role models to other women in the community who have been ostracized or discriminated against.
The institute are working in conjunction with Mahila Mandal Society, a female-centric organization, and the Northeasttoday.in media publication to spread the word about Mrs. Arunachal.
“This event envisages to provide women of all walk of life, especially married, from the differently able to Rape victims and women who have been afflicted with societal torments and stigmas, such as Polygamy and others a space to feel liberated and empowered. We thrive to transcend beyond, just merely a Beauty Pageant as the names suggests, by sending the message of denouncing Patriarchy and Female oppression,” writes Ngurang Reena at Northeast Today.
Starting back in March, the event held workshops and seminars in various areas of the state to encourage women to apply. Event organizers are also relying on the families of women in their communities to urge them to participate.
Some of the issues that plague women in this part of India include polygamy, child marriage, problematic “bride price” traditions which often place burdens on families who cannot provide an adequate enough dowry for their daughter, rendering her less valuable, and the lack of education opportunities.
Writer Ngurang, who is also the chairperson of the Ngurang Learning Institute, also talks about the lack of women in public roles, which affects policy and economic opportunities.
“The social representation of Women is and has been a sad affair for a very long time…Women are still considered a secondary gender here and are often perceived as the shadows of their husbands, which calls for an immediate intervention,” she said.
Along with lower female voter turnout compared to men, the literacy rate in Arunachal Pradesh shows there is a lot of room for improvement. Male literacy stands at 73.69%, but for women is it 59.57%. In the traditional conservative culture found in many parts of India, families often see marrying women off as a better option than allowing them to receive an education.
Which is why the Mrs. Arunachal pageant is a welcome change in the midst of gender oppression. They want to empower women who never had the chance to further their education by making that the key focus of this event, rather than what they look like in a bikini or ball gown.
This is not the only kind of beauty pageant we have come across, which seeks to celebrate the substantial aspects of a woman’s life rather than reinforce societal pressures about her physical appearance. This city in Argentina has banned typical beauty pageants in favor of “community awards”, encouraging women to play a more public role. Over in Uganda, the army decided it was better for women to learn about agriculture skills that can empower them financially, and changed the format of their national beauty pageant.
Closer to home in the US, we are also seeing small steps of progress in the outdated beauty pageant model. This year’s Miss Teen USA decided to ditch the swimwear segment in favor of athletic wear, to help promote a healthy and active lifestyle.
And let’s just be clear – beauty is not wrong, neither is wearing a bikini or caring about fashion. We post many articles related to these issues and think femininity is something we should celebrate, not denigrate. It’s when they become the ONLY topics associated with women in a way that ostracizes people who do not have one particular body type or feminine look that we have a problem.
We certainly hope more women in Arunachal Pradesh will participate in Mrs. Arunachal and become role models and mentors to younger girls in their community. They can become powerful agents of change in a country that is crying out for it.