Miss Asia loses a culture clash: Threats by religious leaders thwarted a beauty contest for Asians, amid claims of hypocrisy from contestants. Linda Grant reports

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The Independent Online
No catwalk, no trophies, no first prize of pounds 500 plus a weekend for two in Paris, no Western evening gowns with elbow-length gloves. Worst of all, there were no modelling agencies fighting over the hopeful aspirants from all over Britain.

The Miss Asia UK contest was to have been held at the Dome nightclub in the centre of Birmingham last Wednesday. Instead, it was business as usual at the club's bhangra night: around 1,800 young Asian males in their smartest clothes on the dance floor while a couple of hundred Asian young women in traditional dress huddled together, anxious to avoid the press cameras because most had lied to their parents about where they were.

Throughout the weekend, the contest's promoters, Amarajit Sidu, Jas Kainth and Surinder Singh Bhogal, had been in meetings with leaders of the Sikh community in the Midlands.

After threats of demonstrations and a marathon three-hour session last Sunday with 35 Sikh businessmen, they gave way to religious objections that a beauty contest was 'degrading to women and to the community'. On Monday they took time off from their day jobs (Mr Sidu and Mr Bhogal are pharmacists, Mr Kainth is a dentist) to phone the 35 contestants and advise them that their hopes of using the contest to start modelling careers were over.

It was all to be very tasteful, Mr Kainth said. He and his partners had spent two-and-a-half months publicising the contest on radio stations, college notice-boards and in the Asian press.

Hundreds of girls had sent in their photographs. The 35 selected were told to bring two outfits (traditional Asian dress and a Western evening gown), a friend to help them dress and their mothers to act as chaperone. 'Not at any stage did we think of having girls in bikinis,' Mr Kainth sais. 'We know the culture. We'd thought of all these ethical problems.'

But the Sikh community leaders were suspicious: 'We were told it was a fashion show but it was not a fashion show, it was a beauty contest,' said Gurdial Atwal, of the Council of Sikh Gurudwaras (temples). 'It's taking place in a nightclub for over- 18s, but it should be open to everyone. And we heard that a modelling agency was invited. We don't want girls on show: their beauty is for their husbands.'

Sally Gill and Kim Uppall, both married and with professional jobs, had dutifully gained permission to enter from their husbands, parents and in-laws. They turned up anyway, partly in the hope that the modelling agencies might appear, and partly to vent their anger. They were defiantly wearing their most Western outfits - tight black trousers and little jewelled boleros. 'It's so disgusting,' said Sally. 'We've just had our portfolios done. We thought this was the ideal opportunity to give us self-confidence. It's 1993 and we're living in England. If these religious leaders don't want to be here, they don't have to come. And what's wrong with Asian girls being pretty? It's all right for Miss India.'

Another girl, who had accompanied a disappointed contestant, said: 'They want to control your life. They don't want you to think for yourself. They don't want women to be independent.' She no longer lives with her parents - but would not give her name.

Rashma, 21, a civil servant from London who had accompanied another contestant, had taken the precaution of wearing traditional dress and a wedding ring (though she is not married). 'If you come in a more Westernised style you get more hassle. My little ring keeps them away. Birmingham is the worst place, the guys are so backward. They'll mess around with you then get married to a nice virgin from India. I don't think they realise how liberated women are in the big towns there. To come here is bad enough, to enter for Miss Asia UK is asking for trouble.'

A couple of sharply dressed youths had paid full price in advance for tickets that were reduced on the door after the cancellation.

'It's absolute crap,' they said. 'The organisers knew this could happen. They advertised the beauty contest just to get people in. The promoters should tell these religious leaders not to turn up if they don't like it.'

Hovering on steps leading to the dance floor, Mac, the bouncer, was prepared for trouble: 'There's always lots of violence at these events because there aren't enough girls to go round,' he explained. 'The boys are not used to drink and they don't feel free to do what they want because there are some older men here as well.'

Part of Gurdial Atwal's argument was that beauty contests had long been discredited in mainstream British society. Was there an unlikely alliance here between Sikh fundamentalism and feminism?

'It's a hard one to balance,' said Hannana Saddiqui of Southall Black Sisters, a feminist Asian organisation. 'On the one hand we would oppose beauty contests. But these leaders don't care about other women being degraded, they only care about their own women because they want to control them. We say women should have the right to choose.'

Beauty contests thrive in India itself. Pamela Bordes was a recent and famous Miss India. Competitions are held at village, college and even factory level, according to the Indian High Commission.

But there could be worse news for aspiring models than the cancellation. Shami Ahmed, managing director of the Manchester-

based Joe Bloggs Jeans, and one of the would-be judges, said: 'The search is definitely on among model agencies for an Asian supermodel. The most difficult part is the girls' height. You have to be 5 feet 10 inches even to get on the catwalk and most Asian girls just aren't that tall.'

(Photograph omitted)

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