Split over Tibetan beauty pageant

The Australian

Published in:

Critics of the Miss Tibet contest see it as a cultural betrayal,
writes Vanessa Walker

It must be one of the strangest beauty pageants in the world. The people are living in exile, the monk-Prime Minister vehemently disapproves and the swimsuit round is held at a secret location.

Welcome to Miss Tibet, a beauty contest so controversial that last year only one contestant was brave enough to enter.

Now in its third year, the pageant has split the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and the centre of the Tibetan community-in-exile. In the weeks leading up to Sunday's final, posters demanding Tibetans boycott the show have covered billboards.

Opponents claim it is offensive to Tibet's Buddhist culture. They also accuse the organiser of mimicking the worst of Western ideals and humiliating Tibetan women. In internet chat rooms, monasteries and cafes throughout the Tibetan diaspora, passionate arguments have been raging about the virtue or otherwise of beauty contests.

The opposing sides are prominently represented in Dharamsala, a town of 23,000.

In one camp is Miss Tibet creator Lobsang Wangyal. A flamboyant organiser of dance parties, he passes for the town's only spin-meister.

He says the aim of the contest is to bring international attention to the plight of the Tibetan people, now in their 45th year of exile from Chinese-occupied Tibet.

"When one reads the words Miss Tibet, Tibet is thought of as a separate entity and not part of China," he says.

"Miss Tibet is a positive thing for Tibet. Any coverage of Tibet is beneficial."

He also says the contest, which had five contestants this year, is a much-needed foray into modernity for Tibetan culture and an "empowering advance" for Tibetan women.

The most outspoken critic of the contest is Samdhong Rinpoche, the scholar-monk who is the Tibetans' first Prime Minister-in-exile. He says that the pageant damages the case for Tibet.

"Tibet is respected because of its spirituality and its cultural traditions in the world. The Tibetan cause stands on that basis," he says.

"Just imitating Western culture will never help the Tibetan cause -- it will always damage the Tibetan cause."

He rejected beauty contests as anathema to the Buddhist view. "We are firm believers in the fact that the body is the home of the conscience," he said. "Beauty is skin-deep and there can be no such contest of individuals wherein inner virtues could be put to the test."

Given how divisive the issue is, the five women who entered were both brave and ambitious. One, Kelsang Dickey, was so determined to compete that she escaped from Tibet, trudging through the snowy Himalayas in freezing rains and hiding to avoid Chinese police.

But it was a computer engineer born in exile, Tashi Yangchen, who won the crown and the 100,000 rupees ($3100) first prize. She pledged to bring international attention to Tibet, but admitted it would be difficult.

Miss Tibet cannot yet enter Miss World or Miss Universe; instead she is relegated to second-tier beauty pageants such as Miss International Tourism.

The other winner was Mr Wangyal. The competition drew capacity crowds of about 2500 people. A candlelight vigil held the same night to protest against the imminent execution of a renowned lama in Tibet named Tulku Tenzin Delek drew 250.

That's modernity.

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