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Toned Down Beauty Contest Doesn’t Escape Islamic Wrath

December 13, 1991

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ This was the plan: scrap the swimsuit competition, emphasize ″inner beauty,″ and maybe Egypt’s new beauty contest wouldn’t offend the powerful Islamic scholars who banned its predecessor last year.

It didn’t work.

Not only did make-up and thigh-high dresses raise eyebrows in a country where women are expected to be properly covered, but the Dec. 1 contest’s title - ″Egypt’s Ideal Woman″ - rankled the powers.

″Ideal in what? Singing and dancing?″ said Sheik al-Sayyed Shamseddine, whose clerical committee had last year’s ″Miss Egypt″ contest banned. Egypt’s ideal woman should be one that conforms to Islam’s dress code and is virtuous, he said.

The dress code of mainstream Sunni Islam, the religion of 90 percent of Egyptians, holds that a woman’s body should be covered except for her face and hands.

″The way this contest was organized did great wrong to a society whose official religion is Islam,″ said Shiek Mansour Ebeid of the government’s Ministry of Religious Endowments.

″I tell every girl who participated in this competition to ask for God’s forgiveness,″ he said.

The controversy illustrates a perpetual struggle in Egypt, where people outwardly espouse traditional Islamic values but are largely unwilling to give up the Western habits that have pervaded Egyptian life for decades.

For the ″Miss Egypt″ pageants, which began in 1985, such a climate proved fatal.

Last year, incensed by swimsuit competitions and the publicizing of contestants’ measurements, Shamseddine’s committee at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque, the Muslim world’s most influential religious institution, issued a fatwa - or religious edict - that ″Miss Egypt″ offended Islam.

Fatwas from Al-Azhar lack the force of law in Egypt, but the government normally follows them in cultural matters. It banned the pageant.

Organizers of this year’s ″Egypt’s Ideal Woman″ competition, however, thought they could do better.

Akram Galal, the chief organizer, set no physical requirements for the applicants, although they had to prove they were 18 to 26 years old and single, with Egyptian parents.

At the pageant, a jury of 19 movie stars, journalists, singers and other notables were told to judge contestants on general knowledge, culture, self- confidence, talent and ambition. Physical beauty was a minor consideration, they were told.

Still, by showtime the contestants, who’d been told to wear only simple black dresses, had spruced themselves up with mid-thigh hemlines, jewelry and make-up. Those who professed singing or dancing talent were asked to perform on stage.

″It is not necessary to be veiled to be devout,″ insisted one contestant, Dalia Ghassan, 21, a dentistry student.

For now, no new fatwa has been issued, although Shamseddine said ″there might be.″

But the contest winner - 25-year-old Ilham Ahmed Shawky - didn’t sit well with the audience, either.

As she was proclaimed winner, many in the audience stood and shouted ″Squash 3/8″ - an Egyptian way of saying the contest was fixed. Ms. Shawky’s sister was a famous TV announcer, and her family was well-known to the jury.

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