APPARENTLY the colonisation seems to have ended only in the physical sphere of our country. In our mind, we still carry colonial impressions. The wound of it is noticeable everywhere. The effects of colonial aggression and domination have been dreadful on our culture. In post-colonial history new sounds and new vocabularies are created, but they are either created by the colonisers or the ruling class of the independent state.
Beauty pageant, a new emerging culture of Bangladesh is a significant site to understand this colonial hangover. Sadly, it occupies a lot of space in the mind and thoughts of our young generation. The criteria, through which the idea of beauty is defined in these pageants, primarily are skin colour, physical shape, height, nationality, marital status of the participants. These criterions defy local definition of beauty.
Disconcerting for me is the fact that this beauty pageant — ‘Miss World Bangladesh’ somehow represents the dream of many women living in this country. The dream is sold as women awakening. It is packaged as an opportunity to represent Bangladesh globally. However, deep down, it is a dream mainly based on colonial racist as well as local patriarchal capitalist ideologies.
History shows that Miss World beauty pageants successfully launched in 1951 by Erric Morely. In Bangladesh, the earlier incarnations of this contest was organised by different national dailies including Prothom Alo and Manbjamin. According to various sources, the first ever Miss Bangladesh Contest was organised in 1994, but it failed to attract much media attention. However, it ensured Bangladeshi participation in Miss World held in Sun City, South Africa. In the following years, intermittently, there were participants from Bangladesh in global beauty pageants. Finally, in 2007, there was another round of Miss Bangladesh competition organised by Apurbo.com and sponsored by Motherland Group/Cinevision that sent a Bangladeshi contestant to global platform. In the end, the Bangladeshi contestant was not allowed to participate as the local organising company did not have the required license. I gathered this history reading from here and there, by no means, I can claim my version to be authentic. However, what it reveals that for some time now, advertising and media industry is trying to sell a racially biased beauty myth for Bangladeshi women. My claim is evident in the way, one of the Dhaka based leading English dailies, announced the Miss Bangladeshi 2017 programmes:
With the Miss World Bangladesh pageant well underway, the inherent beauty and substance of Bangladeshi women shall be celebrated at a national level for the first time. There is tremendous enthusiasm and interest reflected on social media, youth and communities at large whose aspirations, appreciation and even reservations have caused a healthy deflection from our typical run off the mill kind of social news.
Much can be said about the way womanhood is defined in the above paragraph. In the name of celebrating womanhood, beauty pageants create a new benchmark of ‘beauty’. Women are used not only to perpetrate the western colonial notion of beauty, it also generate profit, encourage consumerism. The racist colonial ideologies are the name of destruction of non-white culture. Local patriarchal bourgeois involved in this project of beauty pageants make women available as a product of market.
I will not go into that analysis here since my interest lies in clarifying the matter of the promotion of racially biased beauty for women. After the media euphoria around the winner announcement of Miss World Bangladesh 2017 died down, a new controversy stormed the social media. The controversy was centred on the marital status of the winner. Supposedly, she got married on March 21, 2013, but the marriage lasted for about two and a half months. She lost her title to the runner-up, based on the allegation that she has concealed personal information. What irked me to my core is that the debate around the question of ‘marriage’ — whether married women could participate in such competition. Those who thought, she was cheated of her success did not question the very premise of this competition. It is in that moment, it became evident to me that the unchecked racist germs of cultural genocides are still playing with us unknowingly.
In the private domain the contestants stay in-betweenness. Sometimes they can recognise their selves and sometimes they cannot. The self recognition and dis(mis)-recognition make them suffer. In public sphere these women become an allegorical figure. By commodifying women in open market economy, her beauty, body and sexuality are reconstructed. As miss beauty represent an idol of womanhood, patriarchy searches those qualities in other women. Women who fail to meet this idol are disgraced. Success here is assessed largely based on their skin colour. From marriage to job market, everywhere, dark skinned women are humiliated, disgraced and discriminated. Therefore, those who think beauty pageants will be a platform for women; they are in the trap of ruling ideologies. In this competition, women can display themselves in national and international platform; however, at the end of the day, the main profit gainer is male-colonised-bourgeoisie.
We know that Indian subcontinent was colonised by the British for two centuries and the conventional standards of ‘beauty’ possess this history of colonisation. The colonised ideal of beauty based on the idea of ‘white race’ was introduced to us, which still persists. The Miss World Bangladesh with the ambition of sending Bangladeshi woman to world competition mostly comply with this ideal —’white as beautiful’. The important question is how these ideals are reproduced in post colonial societies like Bangladesh. It is also important to look at the women of these societies who chose the pathway of being dominated as a way of their salvation. All of these are possible because of the cultural indoctrination of colonial states.
Luis Althusar in his canonical work, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus elaborately presents how ideology functions in our psychology. According to him, ‘ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.’ Social, political, ethical, all of these ideologies what we assume do not indicate ‘realty’ or ‘truth’ at all. They create hyper-reality in the name of reality. The ideology of beauty pageants also creates hyper-reality for women. The gaze of camera, stage decorations, dress-code, skin colour, walking style, way of speech, judiciary drama — the whole process reinforces the idea of such a woman who has no existence in her real life. What the beauty competitions select as beautiful is actually a result of this ‘simulated reality’. Dare I say, simulated colonial reality? Sadly, most non-white women cannot understand this hegemonic code of ideological manifestation. They become mesmerised by the mythification of beauty.
In post colonial states, majority takes the winner of beauty pageants as their role model. Those who fail to become like this imposed-unreal role model are also forced to suffer from inferiority complex. The dark skin women start to invest money in the beauty market to become fairer, for purchasing commodities that are mostly harmful for their health. They begin to deny their individual attributes and strive to be Miss ‘Beauty’. They enter into this endless process of forgetting their own past and present. In this context, the call for decolonising our mind seems important.
For decolonising our mind from such ideological subjugation, we need to understand the hidden politics beneath it. Frantz Fanon helped us understanding this psychological aspect of colonial oppression in his book The Wretched of The Earth. He elaborated on the role of middle class bourgeoisie in keeping the colonial footfalls in colonised states. They become the mediator between the coloniser and colonised for not only earning profits but also being an ideological exploiter in native land as a colonial master.
In light of Fanon’s discussion, if we take a look at the beauty pageants, it will become one of the most visible sites of such ideological domination where anything but colonial mentality and capitalism are feigned as nationality. It is time that we take a stand against such event/enterprises — Miss World Bangladesh — that promotes colonial ideal of beauty, foundationally prefers white-skin.
In our society, a conscious revolution in favour of black skin is urgently needed. Whatever the colour of skin is, one shall be proud and self confident. A sick social and cultural mindset cannot be sustained through a program like Miss World Bangladesh or other beauty pageants. We have to raise our voice against the discriminations. Not the skin colour but behaviour, intellectuality, ability must be the measures of the valuation of women. Let’s be aware of ourselves, make others aware, and say no to racial discrimination. To end the discrimination is to decolonise.
Monira Yasmin is a student of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University, Gopalganj.