KARACHI (Dawn/Asia News Network): “It’s become the norm to attack Pakistani women who achieve a name for themselves on the international stage. Why are women’s international successes seen as a blot on the country’s morals?”
This was the response of rights activist Zohra Yusuf when asked about the controversy surrounding a beauty pageant, recently held in the Maldives, which has become a bone of contention in Pakistan.
The first-ever Miss Universe Pakistan event featured five contestants from the country.
It was organised by Dubai-based company Yugen Group, which announced in March that it had acquired the rights to the competition.
The company already owns the franchise rights to Miss Universe Bahrain and Miss Universe Egypt, according to UAE-based publication The National.
On Sept 14, Erica Robin from Karachi was crowned “Miss Universe Pakistan”.
She will now represent Pakistan at the global Miss Universe pageant, to be held in El Salvador later this year.
But while her achievement drew praise from many, it also invited the ire of more conservative elements, who raised questions over how anyone could officially represent Pakistan without official sign-off.
Taqi Usmani, a religious scholar, was among the first to take offence.
He insisted that the government take notice and proceed against those responsible for the pageant.
He also demanded that the impression that these women were “representing Pakistan” should be dispelled.
Senator Mushtaq Ahmed Khan, from the Jamaat-i-Islami party, tweeted that preparing for and competing in such pageants was “shameful” for Pakistan.
Journalist Ansar Abbasi also raised a similar gripe, asking which government functionary had approved sending Pakistani women to participate in the beauty pageant.
Responding to his criticism, Information Minister Murtaza Solangi tweeted that the government had not officially nominated anyone for such activities.
On Friday last week, media reports indicated that the Foreign Office may have waded into the matter as well, but spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said they had not issued any statements on the matter.
But the official scrutiny rubbed many the wrong way, with several people criticising the government for adding fuel to the fire over a “non-issue”.
Speaking with the Dawn newspaper, Yusuf - who is a former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan - said that first, education activist Malala Yusufzai and journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Chinoy were reviled, and now Robin is being targeted.
“This attitude is misogynistic and condemnable,” she said.
Social media, meanwhile, was awash with good wishes for Robin.
“Pakistan belongs to all. Every Pakistani can represent Pakistan anywhere, whenever, however,” journalist Mariana Baabar wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Being the first-ever Pakistani entrant to Miss Universe - barring those of Pakistani-origin - Robin was also cognisant of the burden on her shoulders.
In an interview with VOA Urdu on Sept 15, she said it was a big responsibility for her and vowed not to do anything that would bring a bad name to the country.
She said that more than winning, it was an honour for her just to be introduced as a Pakistani on the world stage.
The 24-year-old revealed in the interview that she was spotted by Pakistani model and actress Vaneeza Ahmed, who encouraged her to get into modelling.
Congratulating Robin on her win, Ahmed also offered her two cents on the controversy surrounding Miss Universe Pakistan, telling VOA Urdu that it was mostly men who were being critical of her achievement.
When the same men have no problem when someone goes to international competitions and wins titles such as “Mister Pakistan”, why do they have an issue over women’s achievements, Ahmed asked.