Miss April looks out from her page with an expression of concern. Could it be consternation over the water fountains that have slicked her long brown hair to her scalp, neck and breasts? Or maybe it's the knowledge that those bikinied breasts have already caused one international incident. They angered hard-line Muslim officials in her native Pakistan -- and that was before the calendar. They were news in Asian and European papers for weeks. Now she's not only Miss April, but she's on the freaking cover, pierced navel and all. What horror will these breasts wreak now? Riots? Will a thousand ships be launched?
Or maybe 22-year-old Mariyah Moten is thinking about January, when she goes back to school at the University of Houston. She took a year off to focus on the competitions that made her (in)famous in Pakistan, and maybe she'll be a bit rusty when it comes to homework and exams.
But for now, she's preserved in the glossy amber of DesiClub.com's "Sexy South Asian Girls of 2007" Calendar. It's a freeze-frame of a time in history when a Pakistani-born woman could still be disgraced for wearing a bikini.
"All my family's been really supportive of this," Moten says. "And that's usually the hardest thing. If your family doesn't support you, it's much harder. You know, you can fight the world, but you can't fight the ones you love like that."
The place: a resort on the Silver Beach in Beihai, China. The time: August 2006. The players: Several dozen young women competing in the Miss Bikini Universe pageant.
An enterprising reporter for China Daily is surprised to see a contestant representing Pakistan. It turns out that Mariyah Moten is in fact the first woman to represent that country in the Miss Bikini Universe competition. This quickly becomes the most exciting aspect of an event that not too many people outside the pageant industry might otherwise care about. Moten doesn't even win the pageant, but she is the story.
She wins the title "Best in Media," for becoming the most photographed and interviewed contestant. The one photo everyone homes in on is an amateurish snapshot of the bikini-clad Moten standing by a swimming pool, her left hand resting on her left-leaning hips, head cocked slightly to the left, a sash with "Pakistan" falling right over her bikini bottom. The Indo-Asian News Service picks up the China Daily story, which quotes Moten as saying, "Now, there's less reproach in Pakistan on women's participation in such beauty contests."
A few days later, Reuters quotes an unnamed Pakistani official who says Moten was never authorized to represent Pakistan.
"We have asked our missions in Washington and Beijing to investigate this because it is against our policy, culture and religion," the official is quoted as saying. Other sources identify the official as Abdul Chaudhry, a higher-up in the Ministry of Culture.
A few more days later, the swimming-pool photo turns up at a meeting of Pakistan's National Assembly. According to a report in Pakistan's Daily Times, a member of the Assembly's conservative minority moved to "debate how the girl had come to claim to represent Pakistan, a move that had humiliated the entire country."
The official, Farid Piracha, "then proceeded to pass a picture of the bikini-clad 22-year-old to several of his colleagues." After the first few assembly members took a gander, the paper reports, the photo made the rounds to an official named Hakim Qari Gul Rehman.
"After drinking in Ms. Moten's sexy pose," the paper reported, "[Rehman] then let treasury member Rehana Aleem Mashehdi have a look, which she did, but only after donning her spectacles. Rehana passed the picture on to [assemblyman] Amjad Warraich, who was sitting next to her."
In an e-mail to the Houston Press, Piracha stated that Moten wasn't even a Pakistani national.
"She had no right to represent Pakistan as 'Miss Pakistan' in such a contest which was absolutely against our traditions, culture and religion," he wrote. "No Pakistani lady ever took part in such a contest, nor would Pakistani society permit such a representation."
Piracha added, "According to Islamic rules, a woman is bound to cover all her body with cloth....She wore obscene [clothing] and used the flag of Pakistan in display. In this way, she represented [the] 150 million people of Pakistan. No one had granted her permission for this obscene, unfounded and illegal representation."
But if Piracha was expecting others to share his outrage, he was S.O.L., according to the Daily Times article. No one cried for Moten's head. And since Piracha's hard-line party wasn't the majority, there wasn't much he could do.
Online pundits, however, had unlimited license to wax political about Moten's position as either the downfall of civilized Pakistani society or a hero to subjugated women everywhere.
Comments from DesPardes.com, a South Asian news site:
These pictures of [Moten] are surely an arrow straight to the Muslim Umma.
She is representing Pakistan in a totally wrong way and she should be punished for this.
It's a bold and excellent exposure....We must encourage others to come forward and take their artificial veil off while staying in this country.
Gone are the days when I used to be a proud Pakistani.
The only difference between her and any other high-flying socialite in Lahore or Karachi is the fact that they do everything behind closed doors and in private parties.
After the University of Houston's Daily Cougar ran a piece on Moten, the paper published this letter to the editor:
"Pakistani women are modest. They don't dress in bikinis, but that does not mean they are suppressed or not modern. They excel in school, work in banks and own businesses...I hope to speak with Moten one day and find out what she finds liberating about a bikini. Even the Statue of Liberty is fully clothed, and for a reason."
Moten was born in Karachi and moved with her family to Dallas when she was five. Shortly after the family moved to Houston -- about six years ago -- she started modeling.
She says her parents supported her new interest, but stressed education over everything for herself and her two younger sisters. And modeling at fashion shows or charity events was one thing; at home in Sugar Land, Moten and her sisters didn't even wear shorts. And there were definitely no two-piece swimsuits. She went to Sunday school, and her mother sat down with the girls every night to pray.
She enrolled in the hotel and restaurant management program at UH, but when she discovered a Toronto-based pageant company called Miss Canada Pakistan, she decided to give it a shot. One thing she liked about the fledgling company was its mission, which founder Sonia Ahmed says is to allow Pakistani women to reveal the beauty blanketed in oppression.
She first competed in the Miss Tourism International pageant -- a few months before Miss Bikini -- where she was crowned Miss Charity. But she knew Miss Bikini was going to be the big one. While some other Muslim countries had been represented in the pageant before, Moten would be the first from Pakistan. She had grown up watching beauty pageants, always wondering why her native country was never represented. Now she would have an opportunity to do something about that.
"I definitely expected something to come out of it," she says, "because I know obviously how this works, right -- but at the same time, for it to be this big? No."
After all, she says, Pakistan has become more moderate, and while there are certain social restrictions for women, Moten says most Pakistani women who cover themselves do so of their own free will.
As Miss Canada Pakistan founder Sonia Ahmed says, "They have opened up the women' s rights, and women are now free to do what they want and dress how they want, and represent Pakistan in whichever way they feel they want to represent Pakistan. It's becoming more secular."
After the firestorm over Moten, Ahmed says, she's entered contestants in four pageants without a peep from Pakistani officials. She says it's part of a cultural shift that, at times, can be confusing.
"The majority right now is a modern and liberal government," she says. "The people are now confused...thinking, 'OK, we were once upon a time very Islamic, now we've got to be modern. So if we're going to tell everyone that we're Islamic, are we going to be the bad people?'"
The confusion abounds: While some reports claimed that Senior Culture Ministry official Ahmed Chaudhry was the one publicly chastising Moten, a spokesman at the Pakistani embassy in Washington D.C. couldn't even confirm there was such an individual. And when the Houston Press e-mailed the Ministry of Culture, the reply was terse: "The Ministry have not any stuff about Mariyah Moten and the stated person Abdul Hafeez Chaudhry has been transferred. So find other contacts."
Well, we now knew that Chaudhry was not a figment of anyone's imagination. But a follow-up attempt to verify whether he said Moten shamed Pakistan yielded only this from the Ministry of Culture: "If he said this, it's 100 percent right, without any doubt. Islam respects a woman in all ages." (It was difficult to gauge what effect, if any, Moten had on Houston's Pakistani community. A representative of the Pakistan Association of Greater Houston said he'd never heard of her and therefore couldn't comment; the editor of the Pakistan Chronicle did not return several messages left for her.)
If the hard-line National Assembly minority thought they could shame Moten into a parka and sweatpants, their outrage had the exact opposite affect.
In 1998, 21-year-old Pakistani-born, Bronx-raised Saroosh Gull launched DesiClub.com as a news, entertainment and fashion site for South Asians living abroad ("desis").
"It caught on fire, because nothing else like it existed," Gull says from New York. Keeping his target audience of second- and third-generation desis in mind, Gull recently produced the Sexy South Asian Girls of 2007 calendar. But, he says, it's not just about T&A; it's about breaking stereotypes. Culturally and commercially, putting Moten on the cover was a no-brainer.
"We're using this project to basically shed some light on moderate Muslims," says Gull, adding that showcasing your beauty shouldn't mean you're a bad Muslim. And he wants to showcase it in a big way, with launch parties scheduled at clubs in Dallas, New York, Boston and San Francisco, among other cities. The calendar was sponsored in part by an Indian beer producer and Bibi, a bridal and fashion magazine. In a press release for the calendar, Bibi editor and publisher Ayesha Hakki said, "We think this calendar is a great way to showcase strong and sexy South Asian women. It's an idea whose time has come and we are very proud to be a part of it. Throughout the entire process, we wanted the photos to be sexy and tasteful and I think the end result is a testament to the inherent beauty of South Asian women."
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."
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 is...it'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.
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Meanwhile, Miss Pakistan World's Sonia Ahmed is grooming another Houston protg -- 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."