BY WEAM NAMOU
Iraq held its first beauty pageant in 1972 and then went for 43 years without the competition. Then in 2015, despite harassment and death threats from those who considered it immoral, the contest resumed. The Miss Iraq 2017 pageant ceremony, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities, was held on May 25 at the Babylon Warwick Hotel in Baghdad. For the first time in history, women of Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen, Chaldean/Assyrian and Yezidi origin were invited to participate together. Unfortunately, not all the communities were able to do so.
“Despite our efforts, including promotion of the regions of Assyria and Chaldea, we received very few applicants from Chaldean and Assyrian communities – around three out of 300 applications,” said Syed, one of a number of media volunteers for Miss Iraq organization. “It was disheartening since we were expecting many of Assyrian and Chaldean girls from Iraq and diaspora to participate. But the reverse was true in reality.”
This year, the Ministry of Culture particularly recognized Miss Nineveh, Lydya Khallat, 23, a Yezidi of mixed Babylonian and Kurdish descent. Her mother is from the City of Hillah in Babylon governorate and her father is a Kurd of Jaff tribe from the city of Sulaymaniyah. Originally a resident of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan region, she later moved to Baghdad where she worked at an insurance/investment company. She speaks fluent English and last year she graduated from Al Mustansiriya University with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering.
“My message is to spread the true [positive] image of the Yazidi woman, that she can participate in any competition that’s out there,” said Khallat before the ceremony. “We love life, we’re here to stay and we’ll be thorns in the eyes of whoever threatens our existence.”
Fifteen women from the provinces of Iraq, including the Kurdistan region’s provinces, competed for the Miss Iraq crown but Khallat (representing the region of Karkh) was announced the winner. Fawzi Atroshi, Deputy Minister of Culture of Iraq and the supervisor of the contest, said, “It is her exceptional qualities that made her win… not only is she cultured and well educated, but her beauty evokes aristocracy.”
Masty Hama Adel (Miss Halabja-Hawraman), 18, was runner up and Marina Roqan from Damascus, Syrian (representing the region of Rusafa – East Baghdad) and Sara Abduljabbar (Miss Erbil) were second and third runner-ups respectively.
“I felt that the crown had all the responsibilities of the world [placed] on my head,” said Khallat. “It was a very beautiful feeling. As soon as I wore the crown, I said that’s it, I have to from now on pay attention to my steps, my conduct with people, and the issues I’ll be working on, how I’ll present and deliver them in the upcoming days.”
Khallat took a one-year leave of absence from her job and put her plans on hold to attain her masters degree until she has completed her obligations as Miss Iraq.
“I want to prove my presence in society, that I can make at least part of my dreams come true and to serve the poor people, particularly the children,” said Khallat.
The first thing she wants to work on is what brought her to the competition in the first place, the issue of women’s rights.
“I feel the woman is victimized in society,” said Khallat. “She has difficulty attaining her rights and needs education and support to help her do so.”
Other issues she’ll be addressing are poverty and the displaced. She and her runner-ups have already taken a tour of northern Iraq, visiting Khazer Refugee Camp near Aski Kalak in Nineveh where they distributed gifts and spent time with the children of the internally displaced families from Mosul. The Nineveh governate was occupied by ISIS in 2014 and became their hub. Today, it has almost been entirely liberated thanks to the sacrifices of the Iraqi Army, Peshmerga, [Popular Mobilization Units] PMUs and the people of Nineveh. They also visited the historical and holiest Yezidi temple in the town of Lalish. This October, Iraq will participate for the first time in the Miss Earth contest in the Philippines.
Khallat calls the other contestants “sisters” and continues communication with them, oftentimes having them participate in the programs she’s involved with.
“It’s not just about the queen, it’s about all of us coming together and doing work together,” she said. “That’s my plan.”
Khallat has great advice for all the girls. “Be strong, place a goal in your mind, do it, don’t worry about what people say,” she said. “As long as you’re okay with what you want and your family has confidence in you, that’s it – that’s all you need.”