The Miss Rural Zimbabwe (MRZ), a beauty pageant for rural girls, kicked up quite a storm because it had some contestants modeling bare-breasted. There was widespread - and emotionally charged - criticism of the event. MRZ is the first national-level beauty pageant for rural women in Africa, and the event has set other countries in the continent thinking along these lines.
Women in some parts of south-western Zimbabwe do not cover their breasts, and this is the culture that some of the rural girls - between 16 and 20 years old - were purportedly depicting. Although the six contestants who modeled bare-breasted have asserted that they did so of their own accord, critics remain skeptical. In most of Zimbabwe today, nudity is frowned upon and is not usually permitted on national television (which had telecast the event live).
However, the organizer of the pageant, Sipho Makabuza - a former model and proprietor of two urban pageants, Miss Summer and Miss Winter Strides in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe's second-largest city) - denies charges of exploitation. She says that the aim was to open doors for marginalized rural girls, so they could compete on an equal footing with urban girls. The contest, she says, is also a celebration of rural life.
The theme of the pageant was 'The Source of Pure Zimbabwean Beauty'. Thus, on August 27, 2005 - the day of the finals - the girls modeled barefoot, wearing no make-up, and wearing their hair short and natural. They acted out scenes showing the decorum expected of a rural woman, and the chores they perform at home - such as carrying gourds of water on their heads, pounding maize and sweeping the rural homestead.
The event was the culmination of a long process of selection, where organizers scoured the country's rural areas in search of "beautiful girls who also embodied the qualities that made them uniquely rural". The eventual winner was, in fact, disqualified for not being truly rural because she had spent some of her time in a town.
Thoko Khupe, Member of Parliament from the urban Mufakose constituency in Harare, said the pageant showcased the rural girl's "potential and capacity to do other things" - other than household work and studies, that is. "If you close these girls off, you are not helping them. They receive help with grooming and how to present themselves. Now, others can come in and promote sports and other activities for the rural girl," she said, stressing that this was one of numerous ways to assist the rural girl child.
Betty Makoni - Chairperson of the Women's Coalition, a collection of women's groups working for the promotion of women, and Director of the Girl Child Network (GCN), which seeks to empower the girl child to resist rape and other forms of abuse - disagrees. "How are you empowering them by bringing them to a hotel and parading them in front of salivating men? Culture is all about dignity," Makoni says. The pageant was held at the plush Caribbea Bay Hotel in Zimbabwe's northern resort town of Kariba, a playground for the rich and powerful. Women parading half-naked to showcase culture is an endorsement of patriarchy, Makoni says.
Makoni also stresses the fact that rural life has been romanticized. "The rural girl has rough feet and rough skin. She walks 30 kilometers (kms) a day to school or to fetch water. She looks after sick relatives. She lacks school fees, food, clothing and sanitary ware. That is the rural girl that I know. What kind of rural girls are these organizers portraying?"
Besides, she added, "These girls should be in school. Why promote the idea of a woman carrying firewood rather than as part of professions that are developing the country?" Genuine empowerment, Makoni said, comes with teaching the rural girl to create her own space and guard it jealously.
The pageant also has its defenders. Former model Tendai Westerhof, a judge at the pageant finals, said, "Our own supermodel competition allows girls to parade in g-strings. That is their style. In the same way, the rural pageant has developed its own style."
However, there are also worries that the future of many of these girls is uncertain after the pageant. The winner receives Zimbabwean $10 million (US$1= 25,001 Zim $) from corporate sponsors, and she and the other finalists are given the chance to compete at other pageants to be staged later in the year. However, the other girls will return to their poverty-stricken rural homes, where they will probably yearn for the good life they tasted at the pageant. Makoni believes this makes them vulnerable to financial inducement from unscrupulous males, and therefore prone to HIV infection.
Westerhof, however, argues that the girls are more aware of HIV issues now. "During the pre-judging rounds, we found that the girls knew little about HIV prevention, even the ABCs - abstinence, being faithful and condom use. But the organizers did a good job of teaching them," she says, adding that the girls are now in a better position to deal with exploitative men.
Claude Maredza, author of 'The Blackness of Black' - a book that attacks the erosion of cultural values - believes the pageant "artificialises" rural culture: "This pageant was supposed to be a vehicle for propelling African culture, but the basis for the selection of finalists was western. What we had was the same pencil-slim, tall requirements as for white women, whereas our African women are buxom."