Indonesia's great pageant debate

A militant group wants Miss Indonesia prosecuted for parading in a swimsuit competition.

Published July 27, 2006 9:18PM (EDT)

Indonesia's church-and-state debate continued this week, and once again, women's bodies were the catalyst. The Islamic Defenders Front, a militant group that threatened violence against publishers of the short-lived Indonesian Playboy back in April, filed a complaint this week against reigning Miss Indonesia Nadine Chandrawinata. Chandrawinata's offense? Competing in the recent Miss Universe pageant. A lawyer for the group issued a statement saying Chandrawinata's participation -- particularly in the swimsuit event -- "is actually insulting for Indonesian dignity and women."

Legally, police are required to investigate the complaint against Chandrawinata. Indonesia has a government decree against participation in beauty pageants, though Reuters notes that "in practice it has been disregarded since [former President Suharto] lost power in 1998." If convicted, Chandrawinata could be sentenced to up to six years in prison.

Cases like Chandrawinata's are serving as the battleground for cultural and political tensions in the country, Reuters observes: "Although most Indonesian Muslims are considered relatively moderate and the government is officially secular, hardline groups are becoming increasingly vocal and visible. The result has been a tug-of-war in Indonesian politics over the extent to which religious values should be reflected in the law."

And Indonesia isn't the only country confronting these questions. Cambodia recently decided to permit pageants in the country, as long as contestants wear "modern formal clothes" and there are no swimsuit competitions. (Cambodia will allow contestants to participate in swimwear competitions when they're overseas, though.) Indeed, the Islamic Defenders Front argues that pageants arent just an Indonesian problem, but an affront to all God-fearing people. "The posing requirements of the competition offended the standards not just of Islam but of other religions," the group's spokesperson told Reuters.

The 54-year-old Miss Universe pageant hasn't historically been a forum for women's empowerment; it began as a Long Beach, Calif., bathing-suit competition and remains more focused on hotness than on scholarship awards or charity work. But just because it's fluffy doesn't mean participation should be criminalized, particularly by those who believe women's exposed bodies besmirch their national dignity. I dearly wish pageants would go out of fashion, but women should have the right to sequins and sashes if they want 'em, and I hope Indonesia will protect Chandrawinata's right to sashay.

And while we're on the subject, props to the newly crowned Miss Universe, who -- now that she has recovered from her fainting spell and assured the world that she eats plenty, thanks -- is kicking off her "tour of the Universe" with an 18-day stint promoting AIDS awareness and testing in India.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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