Bikini Revolution

UH student Mariyah Moten put on a two-piece and became (in)famous in Pakistan

While Moten and Ahmed say conditions for Pakistani women have improved, human rights organizations aren't as quick to announce a victory.

"I will say that the status of women in Pakistan is dismal," says Nisha Varia, Senior Researcher in the Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Division. "And I think they still have a long way to go."

No bikini, no controversy: The Miss Tourism Pageant was a more sedate affair.
Photo Courtesy Mariyah Moten
No bikini, no controversy: The Miss Tourism Pageant was a more sedate affair.

The organization's 2006 report on Pakistan painted a grim picture of a country where "violence against women remained rampant." The report cited the Pakistan Interior Ministry's own figures of 4,100 "honor killings" over the four previous years. These killings occur when a woman has "dishonored" her family, typically through sexual impropriety, which can include being the victim of rape.

Thousands of Pakistanis last year protested the government's reform of rape laws that had been in place since 1979. However, Varia says the set of laws, known as the Hudood Ordinance, should have been repealed.

"What finally passed in the end is a water-downed version, it's not the full repeal that human rights activists had called for, that women's rights activists had called for," she says. "Even many respected Islamic scholars had said that these set of laws are not in accordance with what is meant in Islam."

Perhaps the best amendment to the Hudood Ordinance was the elimination of a clause stating that a woman accusing someone of rape had to produce four adult male witnesses to the act. Anything short of that, and the woman exposed herself to charges of adultery, which carried sentences of whipping, amputation and death by stoning.

While these provisions may have been repealed on paper, Varia says, men who commit honor killings can be pardoned by other family members and avoid any legal punishment.

"While this is a problem that we see in several countries, just the sheer scale of it in Pakistan's something which I think is an indicator of the overall status of women," Varia says.

Pakistan's poor progress regarding women's status is reflected in United Nations Development Program reports, which measure overall quality of life for a country's entire population, and which also examine gender disparity. The Program's 2006 report, which incorporates 2004 data, ranked Pakistan 105 out of 136 countries on the gender disparity scale. On the Gender Empowerment Measure scale, which "reveals whether women take an active part in economic and political life," Pakistan comes in at 66 out of 75 countries, placing it squarely between Mongolia and Bangladesh. This may have to do with the fact that, according to the Program, only 36 percent of adult females are literate, as opposed to 63 percent of adult males.

As Varia says, "There's an elite and a middle class, and I think those women do have better chances of a vocation and...experiencing more equality in their lives. But across the board, violence and discrimination affects women of every economic class, and Pakistan has to go much, much further if it really wants to be seen as a country that's treating women as equals."

"I don't think that that's a shock for them, that's for sure," Moten says of hard-liners like Piracha, the assemblyman who brought Moten's photo in for show-and-tell.

She continues: "In a way, I feel like they just have to react that way, because you have the fanatics that tell them, 'Hey, we need to see you do something'...I think deep down inside...they don't care too much. And if they have kids, I'm sure they dress that way, too -- and they probably live in America."

But she probably won't provoke any more officials in the near future; not before she graduates, anyway. While she's considering pursuing a career in Bollywood, she wants to finish school first. Aside from presenting the best dance video award at the Bollywood Music Awards in Atlantic City, Moten's kept a relatively low profile.

Meanwhile, Miss Pakistan World's Sonia Ahmed is grooming another Houston protégé -- this time, for the Mrs. World pageant, scheduled for February in Russia. Misbah Iqbal, 22, will be the first Pakistani native to compete in the pageant, which includes a swimsuit segment -- no bikinis, though; strictly one-piece.

And while Ahmed says things are much better for women in Pakistan, pageantry is still a way for women to assert their independence.

"Beauty pageants started in the United States, and it was a real women's revolution," she says. "What has happened is, you guys have grown out of it. We...have just started."

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