Ugly row over Tibet beauty contest

Asia Times, Hong Kong

Published in:

By T N Khortsa

The new Miss Tibet is swimsuit-shapely, talented, articulate and dedicated to Tibetan culture and the Dalai Lama. Tashi Yangchen is a 24-year-old computer engineer from Sikkim, India. Her actual politics are vague, but when it comes to Tibetan culture, her passion is powerful. She recently was crowned here in north India, despite criticisms from those who say the very idea of a Miss Tibet and a swimsuit competition flies in the face of Tibetan Buddhist ideals and traditions.

Critics say the very idea of a Tibetan beauty pageant flies in the face of Tibetan values and culture and apes the worst kind of Western exhibitionism. The Tibetan government-in-exile condemned it, saying beauty is only skin deep, calling the event a travesty of traditional Tibetan culture and urging a boycott. No matter, more than 2,000 people showed up for the contest, part of a longer Tibetan Free Spirit Festival.

"It is a dream come true," Yangchen said when she was crowned on October 1. "I will try to mobilize the power of the youth, especially the women's, to raise Tibet's profile in the international arena and follow the path of His Holiness the Dalai Lama."

She is the third-annual winner of the title and the designation, "Woman of Wisdom From the Roof of the World". The honor carries major responsibilities - representing Tibetan culture worldwide. And it carries a cash award of Rs100,000 (US$2,190), a check presented to Yangchen by the director of the Tibet Free Spirit Festival, Lobsang Wangyal.

The five contestants were judged on the basis of attractiveness, confidence, artistic ability or talent and poise or stage presence. Apart from beauty, they were judged during seven rounds over three days on articulation, confidence and stage presence. The physical criteria included figure, skin quality and posture. Each woman delivered a speech on a topic about Tibetan culture, history and current affairs. In the talent round, all of them sang songs about Tibet, its beauty and culture.

The contestants were Kalsang Dickey, Sonam Dickey, Thinlay Dolma, Dhondup Wangmo, and Yangchen - the winner.

The jury was comprised of The Times of India journalist Utsav Arora, social worker Alvia Zaidi, Dainik Bhasker, journalist Hemant Kumar, and a model from Pune, Priya Thal.

A controversy
The pageant, however, was not without its complications. Just as the week-long festival kicked off on October 1, a minor controversy raged within the community, with the Tibetan government-in-exile expressing its opposition to the competition. Samdhong Rinpoche, Tibet's de facto prime minister, called it "un-Tibetan and untraditional".

"Body is the home of the conscience. Beauty is skin-deep and there could be no such contest in which inner virtues could be put to test" in this manner, he said in an interview with the Indian newspaper The Tribune. Meanwhile, billboards at high-visibility locations in Dharamsala also expressed opposition to the beauty contest, urging Tibetans to boycott the pageant.

Participants' view
The organizers and participants, obviously, do not see the beauty pageant as a violation of Tibetan culture, in which modesty is a virtue. Rather, the participants think the beauty contest has in fact brought them closer to Tibetan tradition - rather than distancing them from it.

Yangchen said the contest allowed her to go to Dharamsala and learn about Tibetan culture and history by meeting with experts in the fields of language, history, culture and the arts.

For her, the most emotional moment was her meeting with Palden Gyatso, an exiled Tibetan political prisoner who suffered for 33 years in a Tibetan prison. "It brought tears to my eyes," she said of meeting with Gyatso, the monk who has chronicled his imprisonment in the book, Fire Under the Snow. It is so moving to be in the presence of someone who has been through all of this in reality, she told Asia Times Online, in fluent English.

Considering such exposure to the culture of her ancestors, she said, winning the contest is really secondary. "I was brought up very well," she said, adding that her parents supported her decision to join the contest.

Another participant, Kalsang Dickey, 44, a hospital worker in Lhasa, may be the most audacious of the participants. After hearing about the pageant from a Tibetan from India, she crossed the Himalayas to come to Dharamsala to participate in the Miss Tibet contest - but not before she was hospitalized in Nepal for a few months.

"Since there are no avenues to develop my interest in Tibet, I decided to leave Tibet and come to India," she said, speaking perfect Lhasan Tibetan. "And I have always wanted to see the Dalai Lama," she said, overcome by emotion. The Dalai Lama, however, was not present.

While fluent in Mandarin and Tibetan, Dickey speaks the Sichuanese dialect of Mandarin at home in Lhasa. After her hospitalization she looked tired, despite her bright-red T-shirt and blue jeans.

Sonam Dickey, another participant, was also born in Lhasa but educated in India. A daughter of an ex-political prisoner, she had worked at a computer center in Dharamsala and now lives in Nepal. "My parents told me, if you really wanted to do something, then do it," she said. "I was a bit nervous at first, but everyone here made me feel very welcome and comfortable.

Beautiful and flashing a magnetic smile, Thinley Dolma, 19, was the youngest participant. She was born in northern India and dropped out of school a few years ago. "I was not interested in studies," she said. "I have always been very interested in the fashion and the arts. My friends tell me that since I am very tall for my age, I should become a model."

Another participant was Dhondup Wangmo, a commerce studies graduate of Delhi University, who now works in New Delhi as a customer service officer. She thinks beauty and brains could go together and that Miss Tibet will be "great for [Tibetan] women's rights".

"I am here to encourage them," she said, laughing. Her goal is to work in the auditing department of the Tibetan government-in-exile and put her accounting education into the service of the Tibetan community. "That is what I am interested in, financial accounting," she said, brimming with energy and confidence.

Debate on the modern and the traditional
Other Tibetan youth at the festival and beauty pageant were also vigorously debating the challenges of a culture that is trying to strike a balance between the modern and the traditional.

Tenzin Pema, a student, said: "The Miss Tibet beauty pageant is a very significant event in that it depicts the young Tibetan women both as a part of the traditional Tibetan culture as well as contemporary, modern, clear-thinking independent young women."

But others see it as a part of Westernization, which is not necessarily synonymous with modernization. "Holding events like Miss Tibet is not good for the so-called Tibetan foray into modernity," Tenzin Namdol, a Tibetan student, wrote in a youth magazine, Tibetan World. "Merely aping Western culture, and maybe their concepts of modernity, does not at all ensure modernity."

Elder Tibetans remain conservative. "Given the situation of Tibet, this is just not the right timing to start showing off your legs to the West," said one outspoken Tibetan resident of Dharamsala. He was referring to the swimsuit round when the scantily clad women posed for photographers at a swimming pool in a Dharamsala health resort.

Neutral observers are more balanced. Susan Chen, a doctoral student specializing in Tibetan culture at Atlanta's Emory University, said that while she is not personally supportive of beauty contests in the Tibetan community, she believes some Tibetan government authorities also overreacted negatively to the pageant.

"While I am not personally supportive of the event, I think it is an example of free expression," she said. "They [the officials] went too far in publicly condemning the event," said Chen, who has been doing field research in Dharamsala for nearly two years.

The Free Spirit Award
This year's Free Spirit Award went to Harvard student Meghan Howard, who last December tucked a Tibetan flag into her pantyhose, then unfurled it in protest during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's talk at the Harvard Business School. Actor Richard Gere was last year's winner.

Given the success of this year's contest, which had five entrants instead of one last year, and given that the festival increased from one day to six, it seems the Tibetan beauty pageant is likely to become yet another permanent addition to Tibet's unique exiled culture.

Indeed, organizers say the Chinese authorities in Tibet are also mimicking the exiled Tibetans.

"Irrespective of our Miss Tibet pageant, which was started in 2002 [and apparently following our trend], a Tibetan Beauty Queen [pageant] has been organized by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. This gave us a good feeling," said Wangyal, the chief organizer of the festival. "The youth in Tibet, especially young Tibetan women, now have a new platform to be themselves and to live like other women around the world."

T N Khortsa is a Tibetan journalist and author based in Taipei and Dharamsala. He is completing a book titled Dharamsala: And Other Stories of Tibet's Exiled Culture.

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