Miss Indonesia defies Muslim critics
Artika believes Indonesia is ready to compete once
again at Miss Universe pageant after long absence.
By Michael Mathes - PHUKET, Thailand
Indonesia hasn't sent a contestant to the Miss
Universe pageant in almost a decade, since its last
competitor dared to show up at the swimwear event,
incurring a ban from then dictator Suharto.
But Artika Sari Devi, a 25-year-old law graduate and
this year's Indonesian ambassador, says that despite
vocal opposition from religious groups back home, she
believes the world's largest Muslim nation is ready to
compete once again.
When she slipped into a swimsuit on a Phuket beach
with other contestants last week, Artika knew was
stepping into uncharted territory.
The demure beauty-queen was happy to hug the sidelines
of a risque seaside dance number featuring all 80
other contestants being filmed for the pageant's final
broadcast, all too aware that critics had her in their
Clad in a one-piece swimsuit, far more modest than the
skimpy bikinis worn by the other contestants, Artika
was upbeat about her participation - including
Thursday's jaunt on the beach.
A masters student and a practicing Muslim, she
believes things have changed since the 1996 ban.
"I'm so lucky. This is the right time for a young lady
from Indonesia to join in this great competition," she
said in an interview on Thailand's largest tourist
When she parades in front of the judges and an
estimated 800 million television viewers on May 31,
she knows she will be running the gauntlet of Muslim
critics and fierce traditionalists, who say the event
goes against both Indonesian culture and Islam.
"The big problem is still the swimsuit competition,"
she pointed out as she wrapped a towel around her
waist. "But today in Indonesia, we can see many people
wearing swimsuits at the beach."
When asked if she felt the political winds had shifted
to allow her to compete, she was guarded.
"Yes, but I don't want to talk about the opinion of my
government, because it's sensitive," she said. "I just
appreciate that I'm a citizen who is part of a young
Not everyone back home is behind her. On Friday some
70 protesters from the radical group Front for the
Defenders of Islam staged a noisy but peaceful protest
outside the Jakarta office of the Miss Indonesia
Soleh Munawir Nasution, the group's leader, said
Indonesia's involvement in the pageant would "invoke
God's wrath and bring new disasters" to the country.
"The foundation has degraded the dignity of Indonesian
women," he said.
Pictures of Artika in her swimsuit were on the front
page of Indonesian newspapers Friday, drawing
criticism from conservative Muslims.
"We reject her participation because such an event is
not compatible with our culture, not to mention
religious values," said Syamamah Suratno, head of the
women's wing of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second
largest Islamic group.
"We should not be judged by our physical appearance.
If we want to take part in a competition it should be
about brains, intelligence and skills," said the
While critics have focused on Artika, she is not the
only contestant from a Muslim nation, with Egypt,
Turkey, Nigeria and Malaysia also among those
competing and to have entered the swimwear contest in
But Islam and beauty pageants have a history of
conflict. In 2002, the Miss World competition was
moved from Nigeria to Britain after riots sparked by
an article on the competition left more than 200
Tom Kruesopon, chief organizer of Miss Universe in
Thailand, acknowledged the sensitivities of Artika's
presence but said the pageant was thrilled to have her
"Understanding the religious aspects of Indonesia and
knowing how difficult the decision of sending her may
have been, I'm certain it was the right thing to do,"
"I was a bit sceptical of her participation, knowing
there could be a tremendous outcry back home... but
her taking part puts the pageant in the right light."
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