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Huma Ahmed-Ghosh - Writing the Nation on the Beauty Queen's Body: Implications for a "Hindu" Nation - Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 4:1 Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 4.1 (2003) 205-227

Writing the Nation on the Beauty Queen's Body
Implications for a "Hindu" Nation

Huma Ahmed-Ghosh

Year 2000 was the "crowning" glory for India. Miss Indias walked away with the triple honors of Miss World, Miss Universe, and Miss Asia-Pacific. Three young women did India proud, pronounced the arrival of India on the global stage, showing the world that India was a modern and progressive nation. India had recently liberalized through capitalism and consumerism, and now with these victories through culture and morality, India could stake a claim to the pie of transnationalism. India was a country to contend with. On the local/national/international scene, three young women were setting standards of womanhood and desirability for millions of young girls and women in India and the rest of Asia. A "collective" (comprising the political, social, and capitalist institutions) that was redefining femininity, woman's status, and women's identity was negotiating standards of modernity and values of acceptability, success, citizenship, and nationhood.

Miss Indias are nationally honored and make the front page of national dailies, sashayed and crowned, standing side by side with the beaming leaders of the country. They are in the same league as those "brave patriotic men" who gave their lives at Kargil (location of the Indo-Pak war in 1999). In fact, if the Kargil war had not delivered national pride as expected, the crowning of Indian women as Miss World and Miss Universe more than compensated for it. Beauty queens in India are given the same "respect" and glamorous coverage as Indian cricket players! For Indian [End Page 205] women, the crowning of these queens reaffirms femininity and nationhood as sportsmen and military service reassert masculinity for men. Both sets of gendered behavior bring honor and recognition to the individual and their nation.

My focus is not only on the imaging of beauty queens as symbols of national pride but also on their contribution to the gendering of the Indian nation. In the wake of economic liberalization since the early 1990s India is being showcased internationally through advertised consumer products and beauty pageants. Beauty queens are used as symbols to "convince" the world at large that India has "arrived" on the global stage as a "modern" country on its path to "development." But with the emergence of a right-wing Hindu polity, beauty pageants are simultaneously condemned and a conservative ideology of "family values" is being perpetuated through sacrificing mothers and suffering wives in television serials. These portray traditional imaging of women for "local" consumption in an attempt to enforce a paradoxical role model for women in India. These are the positions of cultural hegemony that the government and dominant elite profess. For most Indian women, this polar idealized struggle does not represent their reality. They struggle to survive economically and locate themselves somewhere between these two discourses, bridging both modern and traditional ideals, despite the heightened rhetoric of preserving the "traditional," "moral," and "Indian" culture aimed mainly at women.

In this paper I am trying to discuss the representations of women, their bodies, and their imaging in the national rhetoric of India in the last decade. I am trying to unravel the oft contradictory stance taken by the government and government-supported media to understand who the "new" Indian woman is supposed to be. In this attempt, I will look at the nation's perceptions of women and the nation's projections of women through beauty pageants and television serials. While there seems to be a duality at work at the national level in terms of "acceptance and rejection" of certain notions of femininity—the issue is more complex and closely tied to international politics and globalization.

Beauty pageants are not a new phenomenon in India. They have been around since the 1950s, but what is new is the national attention they receive and the frequency with which Indian women are crowned at these pageants internationally. What is also new is how such pageants are [End Page 206] mushrooming in every street and alley and how these "beauty queens" are becoming role models for the teeming numbers of young girls in India. In an attempt to understand how beauty pageants are contributing to the gen-dering of nationhood, in this paper I will try to wrestle with some questions: a) Why is there this sudden obsession or preoccupation with beauty pageants at the national and transnational level? b) What are the local and national implications of this phenomenon? and c) What influence(s) are beauty pageants having on young Indian women?

While acknowledging the power of globalization and expanding consumerism, I will concentrate more on the "politics" of women's representations and the ensuing national rhetoric attached to it. The discussion on the historicity and universalism of gender and nationalism and the perceived duality—which in actuality is a hybrid—agenda of the State is spelled out to foreground the conflicting reality of women in India. This paper will conclude with interviews of women who express their agency through their decision to participate in certain forms of representation and thus highlight the contradictions that exist in the rhetoric.

This paper will first briefly discuss the appropriation of women and their bodies for nationalist projects and nationalist discourses generally. Then I will focus on beauty pageants around the world and finally narrow down the discussion to beauty pageants in India in an attempt to compare them with women's representations in television serials to attempt some of the above-stated complexities.

Nationalism—A Gendered Dilemma

Today, nationalism is a term that stirs up a great deal of controversy. It brings to mind images of fundamentalism, regionalism, communalism, xenophobia, and at some level, a heightened sense of exclusionary politics based on a right-wing agenda. Godfathers of theorizing modern masculinized nationalism have provided interesting debates on the "origins," ideologies, and academic discourses on nationalisms. 1

The complex debates on nationalism have not provided an explanation or adequate framework for women's liberation. Several scholars have noted this omission (Enloe 1989, 2000; Jayawardena 1986, 1996; Sarkar and Butalia 1995; and Kandiyoti 1996). These scholars have argued that women's bodies are used as sites of contestation to express nationalism. In [End Page 207] fact, nationalism appropriates modernization, capitalism, post-colonialism, and feminist ideology to further a traditional agenda by using women as national symbols. Ironically, in this age of rhetorical equality, citizenship, and democracy, the populace at large, including women, increasingly accepts these manipulations and representations of women.

In indirect ways, women's bodies, labor, and vulnerable status have been manipulated to achieve nationalist agendas. Both Enloe (1989, 2000) and Jayawardena (1986, 1996) have elaborated on women's contribution to nationalism, and contributions to employment of women by the State to further a national agenda. Locally, there is an attempt to ensure the purity of the woman through various agendas (Enloe 1989; Yuval-Davis and Floya-Anthias 1989). Women, they argue, are seen as "most valued possession," main transmitters of culture, ideology, and values to the next generation, reproducers for the community, active "participants" in national economy and social process, and simultaneously, "members of the community's most vulnerable to defilement and exploitation by oppressive alien rulers, and lastly most susceptible to assimilation and cooption by insidious outsiders" (Enloe 1989, 54). All these presumptions have made women's behavior important in the eyes of men.

All of the above interpretations of women's contributions to nationalism are also valid in India and form the basis of hegemonic resistance to women's independence and autonomy. As will be discussed throughout this paper, these variables play themselves out in the Indian state's conceptualization of the "Indian woman." It is the woman's femininity, purity, submissiveness, mothering, caretaking instincts, compassion, and morality that are evoked by the nation to extol its honor. In India this has been visible throughout history. In her work on Gandhi and Indian nationalism, Katrak concludes that "the belief that women even more than men were the guardians of tradition, particularly against a foreign enemy, was used to reinforce the most regressive aspects of tradition" (1992, 398). She discusses how after Independence, Indian women activists found themselves relegated to "subordinate roles" and "came to recognize the dangers of conflating national liberation with women's liberation." Jayawardena points out that it was the struggle for independence against colonial rule that at times led to the birthing of indigenous feminist ideologies in Asian countries (1986). Not surprisingly the local bourgeoisie constricted such enlightenment. [End Page 208]

Indian women's vulnerability is always quoted to protect her from the corrupting influences of the West, which are always "invading and polluting the Indian middle class with movies, television shows and now beauty pageants, that will bring 'nudity, dubious morals and AIDS in their wake'" (Nair as quoted in John, 1998, 376). John maintains that "women's bodies are not just commodified for globalization through beauty pageants and advertising" but are further "appropriated by national rhetoric to safeguard nationalism through spaces of purity" (1998, 370). Heng and Devan (1992) reflect similar constrictions on women in Singapore. In Singapore even the womb is claimed for national interests. Western values are viewed as individualistic, hedonistic, and decadent.

Natarajan, a professor of English and an expert on postcolonial narratives, elaborated on the role of the media while discussing the power of cinema in the human psyche by focusing on the "symbolic use of women in the erotics of nationalism" (1994, 79). During the struggle for independence from the British, Indian women were called upon to leave the confines of their homes and aid in the "freedom" struggle. They were encouraged to acquire an education and through their "modernity" prove to the colonizers that India was capable of self-rule as an "enlightened" nation. Once independence was achieved India referred to itself with gendered language as "Mother India." This use of language assigns the responsibility of maintaining the honor of the nation to women. At the same time it homogenizes its expectations of women regardless of social class. Such feminized "glorifications" are not only confined to India through Mother India and a vast range of Hindu goddesses, but also are globally embodied in the Statue of Liberty, guerilla women sporting guns, and the Singapore girl promising "a great way to fly" (McClintock et al. 1997, 90). The primary goal of these images is a unified one: women of all classes and castes have the singular responsibility to uphold the honor of their nation. Suffering and sacrifice are seen as virtues that distinguish Indian women from "other" (read as Western) women. These images promote so-called Western consumerism and "debased" values, but in reality they prevent progressive ideologies that might empower Indian women. Jayawardena and De Alwis conclude, "As property of the national collective, the woman-mother symbolizes the sacred, invioble borders of nationalism" (1996, x).

Of most importance in the ongoing debate on gender and nationalism is [End Page 209] the marginalization of women in terms of their contributions to nationalism. Yet, at the same time, their bodies and characters are appropriated to define and "claim" nationalism. Most recent examples of appropriation of women's bodies to further national agendas have been reflected in both Afghanistan and the United States to justify war since October 2001. The then ruling party of Afghanistan flexed its power to show the world its might and legitimacy by interpreting the religious text in a manner that exploited women by requiring women to be totally covered in burqas and not be visible in public to symbolize their faith. In retaliation for terrorist attacks on their soil, he United States sought vengeance by warring with Afghanistan and creating public support for their war by highlighting the oppressive conditions of women in Afghanistan. Women's status in Afghanistan became the battle cry that the United States used to justify their military actions in Afghanistan. Success at war was reflected in the media not only through unveiled smiling faces of women on the front pages of leading national dailies but also with pictures of the opening of the first beauty salon in Kabul (Ahmed-Ghosh 2001).

An issue that needs further discussion in the ongoing debate on gender and nationalism is one of a "nationalist imaging of women" being appropriated by international agencies to locate their interests through a global hegemony. I contend that global markets and international politics use the prepackaged symbols of gender in the form of beauty pageants to exercise their control over nations and women through collusion with national governments.

Queens of Nations: Beauty Pageants Set the Pace

Even though historical literature on nationalism and citizenship has not adequately discussed issues of gender, women's contributions, thoughts, and bodies are appropriated to define nationalism in ways that could render the women's agency marginal or nonexistent. One such trope is the valorization of the Indian nationhood through the performance of Indian beauty queens on the international stage. Way back as 1966 this was apparent in the Miss India contest. India's first international beauty queen, Reita Faria, never did return home for many years after winning the Miss World crown. As part of her contract with Miss World, Faria was required to tour Vietnam with Bob Hope (Monteiro-D'Souza 1998). Indian officials [End Page 210] objected to this visit because of strained relations with Vietnam, hence her lengthy absence from her homeland. By the 1990s, beauty pageants were increasingly used to define and portray nationalisms not only in India but also worldwide.

In her groundbreaking book on Miss America, Banet-Weiser pointedly questions the social, cultural, and political conditions under which women's bodies are mediated on a public stage. Further, how are their bodies used to represent nationalism? Analogously, Banet-Weiser analyzed how the Miss America pageant characterizes American womanhood:

The Miss America pageant produces images and narratives that articulate dominant expectations about who and what 'American' women are and should be at the same time as it narrates who and what the nation itself should be through promises of citizenship, fantasies of agency, and tolerant pluralism. Therefore the beauty pageant provides us with a site to witness the gendered construction of national identity, and I mean this in its doubled sense, as both a statement of the gendered nation and the feminine body as nationalist (1999, 59).

Such culturally determined representations of women can be observed in Indian beauty pageants too. The past decade has seen other countries position their beauty queens to gain national and international attention. The motives have ranged from peace, discussions on racial tolerance, conservatism and traditionalism, and tourism. The nations included are Yugoslavia, Italy, Seychelles, Thailand, Israel, and South Africa. Banet-Weiser recounts that Sarajevo's contestant in the Miss World contest in 1993 necessitated that she be titled "Miss Sarajevo Under Siege Competition." In a dramatic political challenge, at its climax, the contestants unfurled a banner pleading, "Don't let them Kill Us." The issues of globalization, nationalism, and women's body are frequently conflated. 2

Similar conflations and contradictions were played out in India in 1996. Bangalore, in southern India, was picked to be the site for Miss World. This decision by an Indian actor who is also an industrialist brought to the forefront the fragility of India's cultural and political power. Feminists and right-wing organizations took to the streets ferociously condemning such shows. It took 7,000 state-employed policemen to ensure the peaceful occurrence of this event. One man even committed suicide by setting himself afire outside the venue to protest the pageant. Ironically, this event [End Page 211] also led to the appropriation of the feminist agenda of opposing beauty pageants on grounds of commodification of women's bodies by right-wing fundamentalists who decried such events as sullying the pristine images of Indian women. This tussle reflected the earlier stated expectations of women by the State: on the one hand the right-wing organizations expressed the threat from "Western" forces "in terms of rampant transgressive women's sexuality and body exposure, while for the progressive organizations the concern was with the commodification of women's bodies and the spread of the sex trade" (Oza 2001, 1073). Oza succinctly summed up the contradictions the country experienced during the hosting of the Miss World pageant in India, "The pageant, therefore was a site at which political protest and anxiety with 'globalization' as well as the opportunity to showcase India to the world were articulated" (2001, 1067).

The show went on, though the swimsuit competition (now referred to as the physical fitness competition) was held on an offshore island, Seychelles, to ensure the safety of the contestants. This symbolic gesture was to appease the Hindu right and the Indian feminists. Indian women's bodies were not "exposed" on Indian soil, and as Oza put it, "the integrity of Indian borders was therefore maintained and shielded against any obscenity" (2001, 1077).

What the reactions to the hosting of this pageant in India brought home is the fine line that divides the politics of conflicting and opposing parties. Rhetoric in this situation conflated the various opinions into one demand—do not host the Miss World pageant in India because Indian women are pristine commodities. Objections to the Miss World pageant were formulated in feminist and nationalist terms (Monga 2000). In both cases the participants were silenced and used as pawns in both feminist and nationalist rhetoric, denying the participants any agency. As John points out in her work, "Our own Miss India contestant is on record as proclaiming in righteous indignation: 'Why don't the protagonists of women's rights take up the cause of the unlettered, battered women who need help and not us?'" (1998, 376).

The commotion of 1996 has died down and since then India has witnessed its delegates win a few more Miss Worlds and Miss Universes. None of them has created the ripples that the event in 1996 did. While Indian feminists have been quiet about pageants and women's bodies being commodified, right-wing reactions have not subsided since. The [End Page 212] homecoming for Miss World 2000 was feted at a resplendent function in New Delhi. But in her hometown, Barielly, her reception was not as grand as planned following warnings and threats issued by members of a fundamentalist Hindu organization. The Sangh Parivar 3 warned that there should be no public celebrations and felicitation for Miss World upon her visit home. These Hindu organizations' reaction to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister's decision in year 2000 to ban beauty contests in the state reflects a new presence in Indian politics. These politicians dictate social norms with an ease and confidence reflective of the power of right-wing fundamentalism. Some Indian politicians ascribe such events to Westernization, while post-colonial intellectuals ascribe these events to neo-imperialism.

The eyes of the patriarchal state continue to perceive Indian women as pawns in their hands. Beauty pageant participants are pulled between right-wing reactions against their so-called sex exploitation and Westernization, promoters within the elite community and corporations urging them to take part, and even certain political leaders—all part of the same hegemonizing patriarchy.

Respectability of Women: Purity of Nation

One of the implications of the phenomena of Miss India's prominence on the global stage is the cultural backlash by some politicians in India and the representations of women in the government-sponsored media. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh paralleled such sentiments when he declared that the status of women in India is closely tied to the notion of izzat (respectability) and honor of the nation. To justify his banning of beauty pageants, he claimed, "Nudity and obscenity cannot be parameters for determining beauty. Indian girls should try to emulate Mother Teresa, Chand Bibi, Maharani Laxmi Bai and Sita. No religion allows its daughters to expose their bodies to win competitions" (Mishra 2001, 9). These concepts root the family's and the community's respectability in women's behavior. Thus, women are responsible for ensuring that disrepute does not befall their families. Such a parameter then enables the patriarchy to locate and define women within an "acceptable culture" that legitimates and perpetuates power differentials between the genders. This complements the trend in recent years of traditionalism based on a revitalized hegemonic Hindu ideology that heralds this as being done in an attempt to [End Page 213] unify the populace across class, caste, and genders. This logic confers a collective responsibility on men and women to ensure a Hindu nation in which women conform to a traditional status "of the golden era" as sacrificial, obedient, and devoted wives and mothers.

In India, print media and television have successfully constructed womanhood through these hegemonic discourses. While a dichotomy exists in the ideology in the "construction of the ideal," the nation is still reified through both symbols of femininity: on the one hand, the traditional "good woman" image is retained and perpetuated through films, television serials, and magazine interviews with right-wing politicians; on the other, the same media display the "liberated" Indian woman through advertisements and beauty pageants. Tellingly, television is now the site that determines eligibility for citizenship. It is the major avenue for disbursing and negotiating state ideology through its imaging. In recent decades, the media, especially television, is a dominant tool used by the state to define specific gender roles. Television serials reproduce traditional roles for women through "family dramas." They also glorify Indian women through highly publicized Indian epics. Both the Ramayana and Mahabharat achieved unparalleled success on television; success that led to the religious worship of television screens while the shows were on. Such deification, while contributing handsomely to profits for the producers of the show, reinforces "Indian culture." Through their ritualized representation they reinforce the gender hierarchy to which the "nation" aspires. Such is the power of deification that the young actress who portrayed Sita in the title role in the Ramayana was even elected to the Indian parliament!

Anthropologist Mankekar, in her extensive study of female television viewers in India, claims:

Indian womanhood, exemplified in the ideal of the Bharatiya Naari [Indian woman], is an indigenous symbolic construct that predates the contemporary conjuncture. Modified in the post-colonial context, notions of Indian Womanhood have continued to have profound signif-icance for late twentieth-century constructions of identity. Not surprisingly, the state's efforts to harness television to the twin goals of national integration and national development have had a further impact on notions of Indian Womanhood (1999, 8). [End Page 214]

Mankekar continues that Indian viewership of television serials was not aimed solely at middle-class women. It also transmitted "Indianness" to the construction of "woman" in India. "With its political, cultural and economic impact, Doordarshan 4 thus became centrally engaged in contemporary battles over the meaning of nationhood, belonging and cultural citizenship. Indian pop culture, and indeed, 'Indian culture' would never be the same again" (1999, 6). Through television, the nation creates and recreates gender narratives. As Mankekar points out, the 1980s saw serials which were based on an anti-colonial message with women being center-stage in "uplift" roles, and social reformist efforts. At the peak of Hindu-Muslim riots, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, television was rife with Ramayana and Mahabharat as an expression of Hindu nationalism. This was done in an attempt to reclaim Hindu nationalism and more importantly to diffuse caste-lines in the pretext of creating a Hindu unity in the face of an emerging Muslim minority. 5 In the mid-1990s, as a direct result of globalization and India's liberalized economic policies, 6 television serials focused on trials of single women, corporate culture, and adultery, all of which were issues pertaining to an urban and modern society. The late 1990s and early 2000s reflects a shift in focus on television serials. Now the serials are overwhelmingly a recreation of the "traditional" Indian woman projected as the central character in an extended Hindu household. As media critic Bhandare points out, the case of the second most popular serial (most popular series is a quiz show) on Indian television, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Once the Mother-in-Law was also a Daughter-in-Law) is instructive:

[viewer] success has opened the floodgates of family serials, many of which feature large joint families where womenfolk sport mangal sutras [necklaces signifying marriage] like badges of honour, and do little other than uphold family values that would do the Sangh Parivar [right-wing Hindu organization] proud (2000, 47).

Shows reflecting the above values have gained such immense popularity that transnational satellite television channels 7 have also resorted to producing serials reflecting the "traditional" Indian women in Hindu joint families to capture the viewing market. Most television serials propagate traditional Indian values of sacrifice, submission, and chastity of women. In wealthy households comprised of educated family members, educated [End Page 215] daughters-in-law live in joint families, none are professional, and one of them is portrayed as the "ideal" Hindu Bahu who keeps the family together. Often a husband is shown to have affairs and the wife, after coming to know about it, tries her best to please him and searches inside of herself, seeking to learn where she went wrong. In one serial, "Kutumb" (clan), a marriage of choice, as opposed to being arranged, breaks down because the wife wants a career. She lives in a joint family and is accepted by her in-laws but her husband is against her working outside the house. She starts her own business, leading them to court for a divorce. However, the wife is shown as being very apprehensive about it and wants to change her decision. When the husband's sister falls in love, he tries to persuade her not to marry the man since it is all maya (mirage/illusion). Besides, propagating conservative views in the name of "traditional" culture, most of these family serials also reinforce the "corrupting" ideology associated with "Westernization." In many serials the "other" woman the husband dates, or the conniving daughter-in-law is usually a career woman, dressed in Western clothes, and "modern" (read as: Western invasion of Indian culture), who basically is responsible for her ruined life in the serial! Some of the serials are still based on Hindu mythologies that are a great favorite of the rural masses. The whole idea is to promote and idealize Vedic Hindu values of the family that admire feminine virtues as defined by Vedic culture. 8 In her work on gender, culture, and post-colonialism, Rajan warns that "femaleness is constructed, and that the terms of such construction are to be sought in the dominant modes of ideology (patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism). What is required here is an alertness to the political process by which such representation becomes naturalized and ultimately coercive in structuring women's self-representation" (1993, 129).

Given this culturally constructed image of the pure and saintly conception of womanhood, where is "Miss India" situated? In the next section I will discuss the "virtuosity" and "honor" associated with Miss India's contribution to nationalism.

Indian Beauty Queens, Cultural Icons: Devoured and Desired

Mosse (1985) argues that nations determine their own purity and virtues by defining women in chaste terms. The nation thus creates a sense of respectability [End Page 216] for itself played out through the "idealized woman" who while fulfilling her role to the nation is also being constricted by this glorified image. Simultaneously, individual women are, as Banet-Weiser argues about the Miss America pageant, a reaffirmation of "American values of respectability, the wholesome woman everyone can identify with, and definitely not about "girl watching, or base sexuality, or even beauty in a glamorous sense, but rather about typicality and respectability" (1999, 57).

It is the juxtaposition of similar traditional ideals of Indian womanhood that assign agency to Indian women through this conservative discourse on Miss India. She is reviled for her "Westernization," yet she is essential to the promotion of India's visibility through her presence in the beauty pageant on the global stage. Even as she is packaged for international consumption, she is simultaneously viewed as nationally undesirable. Acceptability at the national level can be attained; by Indianizing her global presence, the State consents to Miss India's presence in international beauty pageants. In her graduate research on beauty pageants in India, Monga very succinctly points out that "Miss India's statements are replete with sentiments of mothering, children and essentialist claims about being women" (2000, 39).

Indian women represent traditional sentiments in their responses when perched on the global stage of beauty pageants. At their moments of fame they speak of their inner beauty, their will to compete, and being rooted in their "Indian culture." It is a balanced performance of the traditional and modern as they speak during their interviews. Miss World 2000 exclaimed, "I am beautiful because I am Indian. I have the culture inside me." Miss Universe 2000 attributed her success to her discipline and the virtues of her Indian culture. Both "were proud to represent India, and succeed at putting India on the world map." Miss Universe 2000, seeing herself as an Indian ambassador, said, "As Miss Universe I get to meet heads of state, kings and queens, attend important functions such as the UN Summit, and do things for the needy. I will also attend the Olympics" (Doordarshan 2000). Thus she embraced both traditional (caretaking) as well as path-breaking (political) aspirations. Some think bigger than others, as in the case of Miss Asia-Pacific: "and I'm not just thinking of representing India. For, if I win, I'll be representing Asia" (Times of India, 19 November 2000). Among nearly all contestants, Mother Teresa and her charitable acts are often quoted as roles to emulate by the participants. Yet, history reveals that most Indian winners of international beauty pageants seek their fortunes in the burgeoning Indian film industry. [End Page 217]

The confidence and self-assurance these women gain after winning international titles is understandable given that viewers exceed a billion people! Beauty contestants are now termed "delegates" in accordance with the organizers' insistence that the pageant is about intellectual prowess and not just physical beauty. Hence the swimsuit competition was renamed the "lifestyle and fitness" contest; the interview section is now referred to as "presentation and communication"; talent competition is now "artistic expression"; and evening-wear is "presence and poise." The shift in labels is an attempt to challenge the degrading sexist aspects that accompanied the reputation of beauty pageants. Such changes are also viewed as the first steps in the transformation aimed at changing the public's perception of Miss America. As Banet-Weiser points out,

Contestants have appropriated elements of (mainstream) or liberal feminist discourse as part of their self- presentation. Interviews with contestants are riddled with statements about self-confidence, assertiveness, the importance of careers, and perhaps the most important, "individual" choice (1999, 24).

The Miss India pageants too are located at the intersection of economic liberalization and the global approval of Western social norms. This combined with the "Indianness" discussed earlier creates a hybridism that suits the national agenda, as long as traditional images of women are reinforced through state-controlled representations. The class divide is also responsible for the acceptability of certain images. Most beauty queens in India have emerged from the middle and upper classes. This in itself signifies "respectability." Thus, social class and gender emerge as two separate images that define the nation by creating different "imaginations" to define women. A rapidly globalizing Indian middle class, partly the result of the Indian government's economic policy of "liberalization," has strengthened the coding of the upper-caste Hindu as the secular-modern self, defined by "modern" woman as transcending caste, class, and religion, and hence legitimizing her participation in the global agenda of international politics and consumerism.

Importantly, I do not perceive the participation of individual women in beauty pageants as their deliberate attempt to be actors in a "national agenda" of political construction of femininity. Nor are they individuals being deprived of their "choices." But as Banet-Weiser's research on beauty [End Page 218] pageant delegates in the U.S.A. confirms, "It is a profoundly political arena, in the sense that the presentation and reinvention of femininity that takes place on the beauty pageant stage produces political subjects" (1999, 3).

The "New" Indian Woman: A Product of Emerging Capitalism

Discussion so far has focused on women as symbols of nationalism where the State manipulates "her" to define its varying agendas. In terms of appropriation of beauty queens for an international agenda, it seems that women are rendered without agency, though what is apparent is that they do express a sense of "limited" 9 agency in their own lives. In personal interviews with women in grooming and beauty schools and print interviews, women express a sense of empowerment. Being in beauty pageants is discussed by them as giving them a sense of individual expression, the potential to enhance their future ambitions, to enable independence in life decisions, and finally to represent the nation "with pride." At a personal level, these women do not see themselves as passive recipients. Beauty pageant participants, as mentioned earlier, see themselves as the "modern" generation of women, who have the power to retain the "traditional" and be global actors. In conversations with young aspirants of beauty pageants, "tradition" is defined through spiritualism and family values. They see themselves as successful "straddlers" of both, the modern and the traditional; they see themselves as the "new" or "emerging" Indian women. As Monga observed, "the female body is not only the object of control and domination but also a site where women use their bodies to subvert this control and domination and achieve some semblance of self-determination and empowerment" (2000, 24).

Given the mushrooming of beauty pageants in cities, towns, and almost every back alley, I ventured out to try to understand the driving forces behind young middle-class women's ambitions to participate in beauty pageants. In July and August of 2001 I visited three "grooming schools" in New Delhi. All three schools catered mainly to young women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five years old. One school was run by a well-known beautician and two were run by well-recognized models. One school had three young men (eighteen to twenty-two years old), and two of the schools had two and three women respectively in their mid to late 30s. [End Page 219] All the students except one were single. The average number of students in each three weeklong course was twenty-five to thirty students. All the students belonged to middle- and upper middle-class backgrounds and happened to be Hindus. 10

I attended a couple of sessions in all these schools and interviewed the directors and some of the students. 11 As stated by one of the directors, the basic plan of these schools "was to create well-groomed individuals who could achieve their full potential in the changing culture of India." She continued, " These days you have to look good, talk well and present your best side to succeed in life." "Grooming" implied walking tall and con-fidently, speaking English with the proper accent, proper table manners [knowing how to use a knife and fork], dressing "sharply" especially in Western clothes, and having good conversational skills. A range of teachers who specialized in each category gave classes; for example, a hotelier came in to teach table manners, a designer on how to dress, and a beautician to give tips on make-up. To round off the "holistic" approach to "being the best you can," a new-age spiritual guru was also on board. The session I attended featured a young, well-groomed man in a silk Indian outfit. In the style of Deepak Chopra, he talked to students about how to "bring the inner glow of the soul to the surface."

All the students I talked to claim that they enrolled in this course be-cause they wanted to improve their personalities, become more confident, and look good. Of the three young men, two were leaving for England and the United States for higher education and one on a job assignment to Australia. All three wanted to "modernize" and have the skills to live in the West. The older women thought this course would make them more attractive and help in finding marital partners. The younger women felt that attending the course would make them "smarter." Four of them wanted to have successful careers and marriages, and two of them were whiling away time until their parents found them husbands. All the younger women did hope that if they were "groomed enough," they would like to try modeling and some had ambitions of participating in local beauty pageants. Anita, a nineteen-year-old college freshman, claimed that her parents had suggested this course as an incentive for her to lose weight that would make her look smarter.12 Her business-class family, she said, felt that living in Delhi required her to be smart so she could attract a "smart man" for marriage. For Romi, twenty-two years old, smartness was [End Page 220] associated with helping her get a job in the entertainment industry, which is what most women in these schools aspired to. Romi claimed, "I have an outgoing personality and enjoy Western music. Now I need to get the confidence to go out there and get the job I have always dreamed of—a DJ on T.V." Being glamorous and visible was seen as achieving modernity and as being liberated.

When I questioned the students on role models, most referred to beauty queens, actresses, and television personalities, women they saw as both beautiful and successful. When I tried to draw them into a discussion on the feminist perspectives on beauty pageants, commodification of women, and nationalist expectations of "good Indian women," these students were amused by my questions. None of them felt manipulated, commodified or nationalist! They claimed they were independent, liberated, and modern. When I pointed out that aiming to be smart to attract a marital partner was playing into the hands of patriarchy, they claimed that they themselves were looking for smart, good looking, and well educated men. Besides, all of these students felt that this course was only "maximizing their potential," and not "changing them." Having totally absorbed the rhetoric of the grooming schools, these students exuded a confidence that seemed to empower them.

While the students looked upon these courses as empowering, the directors of the schools were definitely "cashing" in on the new market even though they claimed otherwise. 13 It should be pointed out here that the emergence of such grooming schools is a by-product of the economic liberalization process going on in India. 14 "Looking one's best and being confident is what all individuals want," said one of the directors, "hence there is nothing anti-feminist in what we are doing. If feminism is about giving young girls options in life, then we are feminists too."

From the interviews it was obvious that these women had agency, viewed themselves as making independent decisions about their lives, and did not feel that they were part of an "oppressive" patriarchy. 15 I addressed some of the conflicting issues being raised by imaging of women in television serials and beauty pageants to get their views. Most of the young women responded by claiming that they watched some of the serials but mainly spent television time watching Western shows, shows with music videos, and English films on cable television. While they enjoyed some of the daughter-in-law/mother-in-law serials, they did not perceive themselves as [End Page 221] living in extended families, and definitely not with their mothers-in-law, qualifying their statements with the assurance that they would definitely respect and take care of their in-laws. All the women interviewed did see themselves getting married and having at least two children (a son and a daughter!). Thus, while the young women and beauty queens express an agency through their sense of independence and liberal thinking, literary critic Berlant poignantly points out that "the experience of identity might be personal and private, but its forms are always 'collective' and 'political'" (1991, 3).

Such responses are reflective of many predicaments women face in deciding their roles in society today. There is definitely a clear divide between the individual's aspirations and the collective agenda of the State and society. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid have pointed out that "womanhood is often part of an asserted or desired, not an actual, cultural continuity" (Rajan 1993, 129). In India, recent configurations of women's bodies to reflect political might and ideology are played out in national rhetoric and media. There is a divide given the present dual agenda played out by the government. Irrespective of women's agency and decisions to perform their identities in a specific manner, government responses to this duality are perceived through the lens of its national politics.

As discussed in this paper, in its attempt to maintain its politics of patriarchy, traditionalism, and capitalism, the State is resorting to traditional television shows to unify, inculcate, and create a sense of nationhood under the pretext of "protecting" women and "extolling" Indian culture, again in comparison to the West. For select women, on the other hand, beauty pageants are considered permissible if they can also infuse in the international community the virtues of "true" Indian womanhood. At the individual level as reflected in the research though, modernization is appearing in a hybridized manner—young women want to look glamorous and have successful careers. 16 The liberalized economy is now exposing young women to the Westernized world, to individual achievements based on merit, and to a range of lifestyles earlier deemed improper for women. For young women today, the successes of beauty queens evoke a sense of self-confidence and ambition for themselves. What is apparent are the dilemmas and contradictions faced by both the State and women at the crossroads of globalization, rising fundamentalism, and international political interventions. [End Page 222]

This dilemma is spelled out by Madhu Kishwar's 17 1995 critique of Miss Indias. While in college in the 1980s, Kishwar critiqued the elite for sponsoring beauty pageants that increased the cultural gap between the Westernized elite and more Indianized middle-class college students. But by the 1990s she found that the educated elite was generating the critiques against beauty pageants, while the Indianized middle-class women were aspiring to be participants in beauty pageants. She concludes, "It makes one wonder whether this is the inevitable direction in which the aspirations of the vast majority of modern women is likely to move. If this is what most women want, does one have any moral right to oppose it, since there is no evidence women are being coerced into this culture but are happy being seduced by it?" (1995, 29). Seduced is how one would describe how globalization and State agendas are being propagated. Through media, advertising, and consumerism the Indian State is expressing its desired agenda of the traditional and the modern woman.

This value assigned to the representations and discourse of Miss India takes place in the context of globalization. In some ways, globalization replaced colonialism encouraging indigenous populations to believe that they need to participate in the development process. Miss India then, is the perfect trope to define that agenda; she is simultaneously "modern" and "traditional." On the global stage, her generic Western-like looks, swimsuit, modern dancing, and perfect English diction symbolize India's "modernity" and liberalism. She serves as a covert invitation to international business. On the national stage, she is represented in elaborate, designer "ethnic" outfits, folded hands in greeting, and "traditional Indian" rhetoric. In this context she represents the ultimate modern Indian woman, preserving tradition while heralding modernization.


Internationally, India is viewed as a nation not stable enough to garner international business and trade. Because of its roller coaster political turmoil and despite its economic potential, it is not seen as an attractive locale among newly industrialized countries of Asia. Socially and politically in the international arena, the nation is constantly defined and reminded of its mired histories of satis, dowry deaths, and female infanticides. These serve to define Indian women as servile and passive. The [End Page 223] political and ideological wrangling rooted in religious, cultural and political quagmires has resulted in deep societal economic fissures. Internally, while the nation waves its saffron flag of Hindu nationalism and the Muslim minority takes recourse to Islamic strictures, women's images, statuses, and roles are being negotiated and renegotiated to reflect and symbolize a nation at a crossroads. Once again, women are being defined by a nation that simultaneously wants to revert to an image of the "Sita/Savitri" woman to reflect India's "traditional" (read: Hindu) roots and also show the world that India is a liberal, modern nation. The projection of Miss Indias to attract global attention necessary for expanding trade, business, and international recognition is crucial to this tactic.

Such a dichotomous agenda has so far succeeded because of the emerging class hierarchy. The elite (upper and upper-middle classes) tread the path of "modernization" (read: Westernization), while the growing middle and lower-middle classes "preserve" the image of the traditional Hindu/Muslim women by joining the ranks of right wing and communal organizations. As reflected in the interviews, young women are wrestling with this interesting, often contradictory, juxtaposition that makes it difficult to neatly generalize and compartmentalize the multiple causes and implications of national rhetoric. In this discussion I have analyzed one of the many issues operating in this convoluted and multi-dimensional setting. The popularity of beauty pageants is resulting in the gendering of India's sense of nationhood, a gendering where young women are challenging the traditional by inviting the modern/Western to counter the state's conflicting rhetoric to define the Indian woman.

What is apparent is that Indian beauty pageants are here to stay. With increasing liberalization of the Indian economy young women who emulate beauty queens and are simultaneously exposed to traditional subliminal messages will constantly try to confront the gendering of nationhood. Miss India, as a national symbol, has front-page value. She receives extensive press coverage in leading national dailies and is congratulated by heads of state worldwide, is "rich and famous"; she travels the world effortlessly while the elite party and fete her. She is promised stardom in the film industry and revered by the people of her country. As an individual but even more so as a symbol, she negotiates how modern women in an emerging economy, in a right-wing polity, defines herself. The discourses of representation discussed here are but the beginning. [End Page 224] Miss India could potentially challenge the very representations and institutions that create her.

Huma Ahmed-Ghosh teaches in the Department of Women's Studies at San Diego State University. Her research is on cultural adaptation strategies and identity formation of South Asian immigrant Muslim women in the USA. More recently, she is working on women in Afghanistan, Islam and feminism, and representation of women in right-wing nationalist discourse.


1. Andersen (1991), the instigator of so-called Europeanist nationalism, has pointed out that nationalism, not a new concept, has been around for decades, but Andersen's coinage of the term, 'imagined community' to understand the persistence of modern nationalism has rekindled the debate. Andersen's linking of nationalism to the development of the print media and capitalism has created a transnational awareness of the similarities and differences in 'types' of nationalisms, as they exist today.

2. In 2001, Miss Israel announced that she was going to wear a "diamond-encrusted bulletproof vest-and-gown" to the Miss Universe contest. (Wilkinson, 2001) Through this statement she demonstrated her bravery, but it is also through these very avenues of pageants that the vulnerability of Israeli nationalism becomes center-stage.

3. The Sangh Parivar refers to the umbrella organization that includes all right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations like the Vishva Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Jan Sangh, and Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad.

4. Doordarshan is the government-sponsored television station.

5. The Hindu mythology stage also served to distract from and justify the communal riots that occurred in India in 1992 after the demolition of an ancient mosque in the city of Ram's birth (unsubstantiated through history). This demolition was carried out by right-wing Hindu organizations claiming that it had been built on a temple honoring the birth of Rama.

6. The New Economic Plan was unveiled in 1991 leading to deregulation and allowing free market forces to operate. Import and export restrictions on foreign investment rules were relaxed along with the reduction of state subsidies.

7. Transnational television channels were introduced to India in the early 1990s as part of the liberalization packet. Some of these channels, Star TV, Zee TV, CNN, and BBC among them, are mainly beamed in from Hong Kong.

8. Though what is Vedic culture is not spelled out, there is a sense that "traditional" values are better and should be glorified. There is even an attempt to introduce Vedic Studies in university curricula.

9. I use the term "limited" because in the larger picture, state ideologies are part of every individual's consciousness. For the women interviewed both the reproduction of beauty queens and traditional women in television serials by the state were contributing to their identity construction.

10. I do not want to speculate on this point, since I think that this was just a coincidence. Women from Christian and Muslim backgrounds have also won beauty pageants in India and have represented India on the international stage. [End Page 225]

11. I interviewed the three men, five older women, and six younger women.

12. Smartness as defined by these women implied being modern with the ability to speak English well, dress in Western clothes, and acquire an educated and urban personality.

13. A three-week course costs Rs. 10,000 ($200), which is very expensive by middle-class standards.

14. Television, the Internet, and print media have exposed and made accessible Western modernization processes, music, films, fashion shows, and beauty pageants to the Indian population.

15. During a detailed discussion on the concept of patriarchy, students did confess to being part of a patriarchal system, but felt that they had the freedom to contest it by leading and aspiring to liberated and modern lives.

16. Such idealism, of course, is not the reality for most women in India as we constantly witness a rise in domestic violence, dowry deaths, sexual harassment, etc.

17. Founder-member of Manushi, the first Indian magazine focusing solely on women's issues in India.

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