Pakistan's 'shameful' first Miss Universe contestant

Oct 11: Senator Mushtaq Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami party called it "shameful". Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar even ordered an investigation. Online chatter amongst Pakistani men in particular has been scathing.

But what is sparking such outrage?

A 24-year-old woman.

Erica Robin, a Christian from the city of Karachi, is going to represent deeply conservative Pakistan at the Miss Universe beauty pageant.

Ms Robin was chosen as Miss Universe Pakistan from among five finalists at a competition held in the Maldives.

It was organised by Dubai-based Yugen Group, which also owns the franchise rights to Miss Universe Bahrain and Miss Universe Egypt. It said the Miss Universe Pakistan competition had received an "overwhelming" number of applications.

The Miss Universe finals will be held in El Salvador in November.

Backlash and support
"It feels great to represent Pakistan. But I don't understand where the backlash is coming from. I think it is this idea that I would be parading in a swimsuit in a room full of men," Ms Robin told the BBC.

Erica Robin-1

Those criticising her nomination say she is representing a country that does not want to be represented, especially as beauty pageants are rare in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Miss Pakistan World, a pageant for women of Pakistani descent from around the world, is probably the most well-known. It was first held in Toronto in 2002 but moved to Lahore in 2020. The competition has also seen various spin-offs such as Miss Pakistan Universal, Mrs. Pakistan Universal, and even Miss Trans Pakistan.

In the competition's 72-year history, Pakistan has never nominated a representative for Miss Universe.

Ms Robin recalled that during the second selection round of the pageant which was held over Zoom, she was asked to name one thing she wanted to do for her country. "And I replied, I would want to change this mindset that Pakistan is a backward country."

This may be difficult, given some of the hostile responses to her nomination.

Nevertheless, models, writers and journalists alike congratulated Ms Robin, with journalist Mariana Babar hailing her "beauty and brains" on X, formerly known as Twitter.

But as Pakistani model Vaneeza Ahmed, who first encouraged Ms Robin to get into modelling, told Voice of America Urdu: "When these men are fine with international competitions called 'Mister Pakistan', why do they have a problem with a woman's achievement?"

From rock and roll to Islamic Republic
"We are a nation of many contradictions and women and the marginalised trigger us the most," Karachi-based writer and commentator Rafay Mehmood told the BBC.

"Pakistan is at large an authoritarian state and that reflects in the harsh patriarchal values it enables both institutionally and socially. Erica Robin and the policing she has faced is an extension of that," he added.

But there exists an archive of a Pakistan that was once far more liberal.

Copies of the Dawn newspaper from the 1950s to the late 1970s have advertisements of cabaret and foreign belly dancers performing at a club near the former Elphinstone Street in downtown Karachi. These nightclubs were frequented by activists, diplomats, politicians, air hostesses and young people.

The historic Metropole Hotel in Karachi was also a favoured spot for singing and jazz performances.

But in 1973, Pakistan's parliament created a constitution that declared the country an Islamic Republic and Islam as the state religion.

Four years later, military leader General Zia ul-Haq overthrew the government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. What followed in the decade after has been called a "draconian phase" by activists and lawyers as Islamic law was enforced and Pakistani society was drastically altered.

By the mid-1980s, General Zia had even resurrected public flogging to show his commitment to Islamic law.

Today, the nightclubs and bars are long gone, and the Metropole Hotel looks more like it is in danger of collapsing. Just down the road, a skeletal structure of what was initially supposed to be a casino stands abandoned.

But the yearning for a freer, more tolerant Pakistan has not gone away, and Ms Robin is just one of those pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. The graduate of St Patrick's High School and Government College of Commerce and Economics, is adamant that she has done nothing wrong.

"I'm not breaking any law by representing Pakistan on a global platform. I am doing my bit to quell any stereotypes about it," she said.


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