They had dreamed of representing their country on the world stage and being crowned Miss Universe, but that turned into a nightmare for some young women who competed in the Miss Indonesia pageant earlier this month.
Seven of the 30 finalists for the Miss Universe Indonesia contest have filed police complaints of sexual harassment, alleging that organizers coerced them into taking off their clothes and be photographed in a fitting room.
The scandal has spurred a public outcry and debate about women’s rights and dignity in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country where beauty pageants are popular but controversial.
One Indonesian activist called for pageant organizers to stop parading contestants under the spotlight solely for their good looks.
“Beauty pageants can be a way to empower women, as long as they focus on creativity, gender equality and women’s empowerment, not just physical beauty,” said Dwi Rubiyanti Kholifah, country representative of the Asian Muslim Action Network, a regional network of women’s rights groups.
There are many ways to express women’s empowerment, adding it is important to ensure that women are not exploited in beauty pageants, she said.
“Any pageant that violates these principles should be condemned,” she said.
Mellisa Anggraini, a lawyer representing the alleged victims, said they were shocked and humiliated by the ordeal, which took place on Aug. 1, two days before the grand finale.
“From the information we have, there are 30 victims. It means all the finalists of Miss Universe Indonesia are the victims,” she told BenarNews.
“Out of the 30 people, not all of them were photographed [during the body check]. Based on what I’ve heard, five finalists were photographed in the parts that show cellulite, tattoos and scars.”
Mellisa said contestants were not told the body checks were part of the judging criteria, adding that they had no choice but to comply.
Pageant finalist Lola Nadya said she was verbally abused when told to go topless.
“And it’s not just me, but all 30 of us,” she said during an interview on Deddy Corbuzier’s YouTube podcast.
All finalists, including winner Fabienne Nicole, were subject to body checks, she noted.
“Oh, it’s the same for everyone,” she said. “Some chose to remain silent.”
Another contestant, Priskila Ribka Jelita, was interviewed by the Associated Press about her experience.
“When they asked me to open my bra … I was shocked! But I couldn’t speak or refuse,” she told the news service. “When I tried to cover my breast with my hand, I was even scolded and yelled at.
“I was totally confused, nervous and humiliated, especially when I was told to lift my left leg on the chair.”
Sal Maria, a mother of one of the finalists, wants justice for her daughter.
“I want the perpetrators to be punished severely, not just have their license revoked,” she told BenarNews.
Fabienne, who was crowned Miss Universe Indonesia, will be allowed to compete in the international pageant. She has denied being subjected to body checks and issued a statement on Instagram in support of Miss Universe.
“You may have noticed my recent inactivity on social media, but this does not mean that I am silent in real life. I am very concerned about the events that have occurred and have taken time to understand them carefully,” she wrote on Thursday.
Fabienne said she did not tolerate any form of sexual harassment and always believed that beauty pageants had a tremendous impact on the world.
“Since I was a young girl, I have dreamed of being part of Miss Universe, an organization that has a vision and mission to create a more inclusive world and empower women, and that’s what I want to do,” she said.
Split with Indonesia franchise
The Miss Universe organization, which is owned by Endeavor Group Holdings, an American entertainment company, said it would no longer work with Indonesian organizer PT Capella Swastika Karya. It plans to review its franchise agreements, policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents.
“In light of what we have learned took place at Miss Universe Indonesia, it has become clear that this franchise has not lived up to our brand standards, ethics, or expectations,” the California-based organization said in a tweet.
The Indonesian organizer and Poppy Capella, its national director, have denied any involvement or knowledge, saying the body checks were conducted by a third party.
They said they did not condone “any form of violence or sexual harassment” and were cooperating with authorities.
Indonesia hosted its first Miss World pageant in 2013 amid fierce resistance from hardline Islamic groups, such as the now-defunct Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who called it a “whore contest” and a “pornographic event” that violated Islamic values.
The FPI threatened to disrupt the pageant and mobilize thousands of protesters to stop it from taking place.
The organizers tried to appease critics by canceling the bikini round and replacing it with a more modest beachwear segment. They also moved the venue from Jakarta to Bali, a Hindu-majority island that is more tolerant of such events.
The government intervened and deployed thousands of police and military personnel to secure the event and prevent any violence.