Miss Universe Goes Sideways in Indonesia

What should have been a routine publicity tour in Indonesia for a newly crowned international beauty has turned into a series of gaffes that underscores two nagging issues in the country: religion and corruption.

In town for a week of publicity events to culminate in the crowning of the next Miss Indonesia tonight, Angolan lovely Leila Lopes, the new Miss Universe, was offered Rp750 million (US$84,000) to attend a police event in Bandung, the anniversary of the West Java Branch of the Association of the Wives of the National Police, supposedly an event held for charity.

When the size of the appearance fee became public, it raised a furor, with the Internet exploding with questions over where that amount of money was coming from. Police critic Bambang Widodo Umar demanded that the national police chief summon the West Java chief for questioning.

“The money would be better used to help low-ranking police officers or help their children go to school,” Umar told a local television station. That in turn kicked off a controversy in local papers, with readers saying local police make lots of money demanding bribes for everything they do.

Although police said the money was raised partly through contributions from local police officials, one of the organizers of the event said no money had been raised from the police.

The trip to Bandung itself was suddenly called off when local leaders of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, said that a woman who has risen to fame – and fortune, judging by the size of the appearance fee – by displaying her body on stage was not fit to attend a charity event.

It must be a little dizzying for the Angola-born Lopes, who until last month was a business management student in the UK before winning the right to represent her country in the Miss Universe pageant in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Sept. 12. The stunning 5 foot 10-1/2 inch beauty has thus been given a full dose of Indonesia's often-baffling politics.

Corruption is so rampant in the country – and the public is so fed up with it to judge by recent polls that show respect for political leaders and police at an all time low – that the idea of police spouses tossing around tens of thousands of dollars on a beauty queen made a pretty tempting target.

As for the morality police, Indonesia sends its own scantily clad beauties to the contest, much to the chagrin of strait-laced clerics who would rather turn the normally moderate country into something resembling Saudi Arabia. A year ago, a band of Islamic clerics denounced the 2010 Miss Indonesia, Qori Sandioriva, who was first crowned Miss Aceh, for “bringing shame” to the conservative semi-autonomous province by abandoning its Muslim values on her way to winning the title.

Aceh, which enforces a controversial shariah code on its citizens, doesn’t allow swimsuit contests. The clerics vainly demanded that Sandioriva wear a jilbab, a Muslim headscarf, to the Miss Universe contest. The demand was ignored, as are most calls for freewheeling Indonesians to give up partying in a country that for all the noise of the clerics and many right-wing Islamists, is constitutionally and proudly secular. .

As to Lopes’ visit to the police association event, critics questioned not only why the women’s association had agreed to pay such an exorbitant fee but why the Angolan beauty queen had even been asked to appear. Police said her appearance was designed to “create a positive image for the national police,” leading bloggers to question what it was that a beauty queen could do to raise the image of the country’s corruption-riddled police force. If anything, one might think that associating with the Indonesian police might damage Miss Universe’s reputation.

Lopes later told a local television station she was calling off the trip. A spokesman for MUI said the process of judging women by their physical attributes was deeply offensive and damaging to women’s dignity, making Lopes an improper guest for a charity function.

He did say she could come to Bandung and go shopping in the city’s many factory outlets. “But if she only wants to shop at the factory outlets, please,” he was quoted as saying. “Even it will be better if she brings lots of money to shop here.”

He added that the council would have gladly seen the city welcome a Nobel Prize winner or world-class athlete, rather than a Miss Universe.

“There are [selection] sessions in which the [contestants] were only wearing bikinis. Even their height and breast size are measured. It is banned in Islam, while it is highly adored in the process as if they have a high degree of value,” said Rafani Akhyar, general secretary of the council.

“This is the difference between Islamic and secular states,” he said, conveniently forgetting that Indonesia is not an Islamic state despite its Muslim-majority population.

Masruchah, the deputy chairwoman of the National Commission on Violence Against Women, said the MUI had more substantial issues it could address.

“This is just man’s way to politicize the issue using the name of religion,” she said. “Even with women wearing fully covered outfits and veils, if the man has a nasty mind, it won’t make a difference. Fix the mind, not the women.”

(With reporting from the Jakarta Globe)