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Miss World Bikini Ban: Did Indonesian Muslims Spark Restriction?

This year’s Miss World beauty pageant in Indonesia will swap the bikini for the less-revealing sarong in the beachwear portion of the contest. The decision to ban the skimpy suits may be out of respect or fear of Indonesian Muslims — or a little bit of both.

My first response to the headline was: this seems right; adhere to the host country’s traditions, and maybe even diminish the body image complex of teen girl viewers. But it seems a large factor in the decision to ban bikinis came from anticipation of a potentially violent backlash from the more extremist Indonesian Muslims. Whether the fear is warranted or prejudicial remains somewhat unclear.

Technically a secular country, Indonesia hosts the largest Muslim population in the world. Most of the Muslims are moderate, though the extremist cohort is growing in size and influence. A recent Pew study reveals that 72% of the country’s Muslims want Islamic law as the official law of the land. The Muslim community calls for women to dress more modestly — a doctrine that clashes with the tradition of the bikini contest in the Miss World pageant.

In the past few years, representatives of Muslim groups in Indonesia have protested against shows on their turf by the scantily clad Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Pussycat Dolls, and Rihanna, among others.

The Indonesian Muslims have not made reported threats to the pageant if the bikini contest remains as is; although they have voiced their disapproval of the suits, if not the entirety of the pageant. “That contest is just an excuse to show parts of women’s bodies that should remain covered,” says Mukri Ali, a prominent cleric from Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). “It’s against Islamic teaching.”

"I do not want to upset or get anyone in a situation where we are being disrespectful,” responds pageant chairwoman Julia Morely. “We treasure respect for all the countries that take part in the pageant.”

Morely does not speak to whether this may be a fear-motivated defensive move to avoid confrontation with pageant’s hosts. 

Miss Indonesia 2005 Imelda Fransisca says it’s common for tourists in Indonesia to wear a bikini at the beach, “but of course it would be a different story [if women in bikinis] were broadcast on television and watched by the public, especially as the majority are Muslim. I guess there’s nothing wrong in complying with the country’s customs and values.”

Many American and English conservatives perceive banning the bikinis as kowtowing to misogynist Muslim traditions. Instead, they say, the pageant should proceed with the skimpy two-pieces as we’re accustomed — or host the pageant in a country “where beauty isn’t forbidden yet,” writes right-winger Dave Lount

The sarongs — which aren’t even all that modest — may serve the dual function of respecting the Indonesian Muslim community and diminishing the potential for backlash from the extremist cohort. Watch the pageant on September 28 to see how it plays out.

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