There was a beauty pageant on Sunday, in fact there was more than one. But those of you reading this post probably only heard about one. In Las Vegas, 51 women competed for the Miss USA award. In the end, Rima Fakih, a Lebanese woman who immigrated to the US as a child took home the prize.
I’ve never paid much attention to such awards which I feel promote sexist ideas about women and a shallow definition of “beauty.” Had this year’s Miss USA not been a Lebanese-American, I probably wouldn’t have even heard about the award on Monday morning when I opened my computer in Beirut. I had known about a completely different beauty pageant that took place on Sunday.
As part of my ongoing photo project documenting the lives of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, I attended my first ever beauty pageant. However, this one was not in Las Vegas, but in the working class Ouzai district of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs. There 11 Ethiopian women, all who came to Lebanon in past years in search of work, held their own beauty pageant that closely resembled the Donald Trump owned Miss USA pageant.
The contestants had been preparing for months. Coming together each Sunday (their only day off), they practiced everything from walking in high heels to smiling for the cameras. On Sunday they wore a number of different outfits including traditional Ethiopian clothes, swimsuits and evening gowns, as they strutted up and down the catwalk in front of four Lebanese judges and dozens of cheering spectators, mostly other Ethiopian women working in Lebanon.
One of the event’s emcees, a Nigerian man working in Lebanon, made it clear that the competition was not merely to celebrate the most “beautiful” Ethiopian woman in Lebanon, but to present a different image of Ethiopian women in a country where they face daily discrimination.
After almost four hours of intense competition and a brief Q&A session where contestants were asked about Ethiopian and Lebanese culture, one woman* who works at a health club in Beirut was crowned Miss Ethiopia in Lebanon.
*To protect their identities all women are kept anonymous.