A controversy erupted at the Mrs. Sri Lanka 2021 beauty pageant as the crown of the Mrs. Sri Lanka winner was forcefully taken by Mrs. World 2020 who claimed that the winner was a divorcee thus ineligible to compete. However, on the following day, the crown was returned to the original winner on the basis that she was not divorced but only separated from her husband. While this rather ‘dramatic’ incident has sparked discussions amongst the netizens as to who ‘should have won’ and whether or not this was a publicity stunt, it also points to some realities about the arguments on ‘women supporting women, the stigma that surrounds divorce and the status of the beauty pageants in general. Therefore, what is more thought-provoking than the incident itself are the reactions to it by the netizens.
Separated not divorced
A factor that emerges as a commentary about the patriarchal standards that are imposed in the beauty pageants is underlined when Mrs. World 2020 states that “there is a rule that [the contestant] has to be married and not divorced”. Notably, many beauty pageants have eligibility rules that concern the relationship status of the contestants. Even to be Miss India, there is a rule that “the candidate should be single, not engaged, unmarried and never been married before”. These criteria are restrictive and exclusionary of single mothers and women who are divorced.
What is so negative about these eligibility criteria being tied to the relationship status of the contestants? The answer is manifested in one of the memes that were made in this regard. “Even to be a beauty queen a woman has to be related to a man. Keep that fear with you,” [රූ රැජිණක් වෙන්නත් ගෑනියෙක්ට මිනිහෙක් ඕනේ. ආන් ඒ බය තියාගනින්.]. It removes the woman off of her individuality and views her in relation to her male counterpart which is a rather archaic way of perceiving women. Sadly, at this Mrs. World pageant where the controversy erupted, the crown was returned to the original winner on the basis that she was not divorced!
“Only women bring down other women'', a male netizen who is a connection of the writer’s personal Facebook had written. This statement is quite intriguing as this idea of ‘women helping other women’ is a concept that is discussed in African American feminisms such as ‘womanism’. ‘Womanism’, a set of ideas that were posited by African Americans such as Alice Walker advocates women ‘loving’ other women sexually as well as non-sexually. It also talks about appreciating women’s culture, strength, and emotional flexibility. What we can see here is a clear reaction to exclusionary white feminism which was solely about the while middle class cis-heterosexual women and an appreciation of African American culture and lived experiences.
These ideas that were brought about with ‘womanism’ were reiterated in recent times when celebrities and Social media personalities such as Lilly Singh (Also known as superwoman) called for the netizens to end the “girl on girl hate” and spread #GirlLove. She also collaborated with some other YouTubers under this hashtag, which went viral on Twitter. However, it is interesting to reflect on what these interventions convey exactly when they say that women should support other women. This leaves us in a problematic position because it leads us to think, ‘should women not fight at all and favor women at all costs simply because they are women?’ If that is the case, how is this better than a politician who practices nepotism, because that is what women should be doing, according to these ideas?
With the Mrs. Sri Lanka Controversy, an opportunity has occurred for those who are critical of feminisms to posit ideas along the lines of ‘you talk about supporting women but look at who quite literally de-crowned another woman’ which on the outset is a slap across the face for those who advocate women supporting women. While acknowledging the political and social circumstances which resulted in the ideology of women supporting women, it is arguable that it is essentially about comprehending the lived experiences of other women; one’s capacity to comprehend another’s lived experience is not completely dependant on whether they are a woman, a nonbinary person or man, but on their personal lived experience. Therefore when we say that women ‘should’ support other women on one hand we are essentially forgetting that women too, have individual identities and experiences. On the other hand, it also puts us in the pitfall of wanting to view women as a group with everyone sharing similar lived experiences, intelligence and identities. Thereby, while fathoming the need for women, an oppressed group in society, to be empathetic towards other women who are equally oppressed, there can be instances where women do not do that, which is a telling example that women too have individualities just like men!
Furthermore, noteworthily, the male narrative which came about after the Mrs. Sri Lanka controversy which shames women for not supporting women essentially caters to the patriarchal need to ‘correct’ women. These ideas essentially elevate the position of men, as the ‘cooler kind’ and the kind that women should look up to.
Again, what we see here is an instance where a situation which could have been effectively utilized to celebrate women, being conducted according to patriarchal standards. When there are consequences of its patriarchal structure, the women involved are shamed. What we see here is an interplay between the victimization and the victim-blaming of the patriarchy, manifested once again through a beauty pageant that should have been about women, after all.
- Isurinie Mallawarachchi