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Swimsuit poses problem for Miss Universe hopeful in Muslim Indonesia

Written By Syafrein Effendiuz on 7/09/04 | Selasa, September 07, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) - Artika Sari Devi looks the part of a beauty queen with her million-dollar smile and hourglass figure. And she dreams of one day becoming Indonesia's first Miss Universe.

There is only one thing holding her back - a swimsuit.

Like most international beauty competitions, Miss Universe participants must appear in a swimsuit _ either a one-piece model or a bikini. But the 24-year-old Miss Indonesia is facing condemnation from religious leaders and government officials in the world's most populous Muslim nation, who say women in swimsuits are offensive and violate religious tenets requiring them to dress modestly.

"Every country can join the competition so why not Indonesia?'' asks Artika, who last month won Miss Indonesia, an event that does not require contestants to parade in swimwear. "I don't see a problem with the swimsuit. It's only to show my proportions. ... So many Muslims wear swimsuits. I wear one swimming.''

Battles over bathing suits would seem out of place in Indonesia, where newsstands are filled with magazines featuring scantily clad models and miniskirts. Prostitution rings operate openly in all major cities.

But Islamic conservatives _ some of whom want to replace Indonesia's secular system with one bound by Islamic law - have been emboldened since the fall in 1998 of ex-dictator Suharto.

Under pressure from fundamentalists, the male-dominated parliament is debating a law that would make kissing in public and erotic dancing punishable by jail time. Legislation that would stiffen penalties for domestic violence and allow abortion in certain cases have bogged down amid opposition from conservatives.

Last month, film censors banned "Kiss Me Quick'' a teenage romantic comedy after protests by a popular Muslim cleric who said the title could encourage promiscuity.

Beauty contests, too, have long been a favorite target for Islamic conservatives in Indonesia and other parts of the world.

In 2002, the Miss World pageant was moved out of Nigeria after it sparked riots that killed 200 people, and in 1998 the Miss Bangladesh beauty contest was canceled follow days of violent protests by Islamic groups.

During his 32-year reign, Suharto banned women from participating in the contests because he felt they were not compatible with "Indonesia's culture.''

Alaya Rohali, now a popular television presenter, defied the ban in 1996 and competed in a Miss Universe contest in Las Vegas - only to return home to threats and media attacks.

"Beauty contests manipulate the rights of women for the sake of commercial interests and that is not good for Islam,'' said Irfan Awwas, a spokesman for the Islamic group Majelis Mujahidin, which has vowed to launch protests if Indonesia sends anyone to Miss Universe.

Miss Indonesia organizers, led by 76-year-old cosmetics executive Mooryati Soedibyo, have sought to win over a skeptical public in recent months, hoping to ensure Artika will be able to take part in next summer's Miss Universe pageant in Thailand.

They brought Miss Egypt to Indonesia in July to demonstrate that other Muslim countries take part, including neighboring Malaysia. They also arranged a meeting between Miss Universe 2004 Jennifer Hawkins and President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Officials from Miss Universe, too, have tried to find a compromise - proposing last year that an Indonesian participant wear a one-piece like a few other contestants do. But Indonesian organizers told them that the country "was not ready.''

"Every year, we give the women a choice of what swimsuit they want to wear,'' said Mary Hilliard McMillan, a spokeswoman for Miss Universe in New York.

"But they have to wear a swimsuit,'' she said. "Our contest has 54 years of history and in those 54 years the competition and rules have been the same. At the end of the day, it's a beauty contest and being judged on physical fitness is one-third of what determines that.'' The government has so far refrained from taking a side in the controversy, possibly mindful of the protests that engulfed the Suharto administration.

"I support the competition as long as it's in accordance with our culture,'' said Sri Redjeki Soemaryoto, the women's empowerment minister. "But I only support it if she does not wear a bikini.''

Mooryati, a soft-spoken Javanese princess, admits her nearly 20-year campaign to send an Indonesian to Miss Universe has stirred its share of controversy.

But she says the opposition to the contest is shortsighted, arguing that Miss Indonesia's appearance could help the country's battered tourist economy. It was hit hard after Islamic militants bombed two nightclubs in Bali in 2002, killing 202 people.

"The purpose of this competition is good ... to exchange culture, to promote your tourist industry, your country's products and arts,'' she said. "By doing this, we are accepting that we have entered the globalization era.''-AP