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Celeb talk: The world at her fingertips
David Light / 19 August 2009
Miss Pakistan World is the beauty pageant currently in the spotlight as a symbol of modern Pakistan. Courting some controversy along the way, founder and president of the contest, Sonia Ahmed, speaks to City Times about her achievements
It is the pageant which has made headlines and sent shockwaves around the world, mainly as a result of its inclusion of a bikini wearing portion of the show, but Miss Pakistan World continues to thrive due to the efforts of one woman — Sonia Ahmed.
A native of Karachi, who has spent her life in the Middle East and then Canada, Sonia single-handedly created a beauty pageant for her nation when she found there wasn’t one, while she was in college. A lover of all kinds of performances, Sonia felt her country needed to be included in these international shows in order to demolish stereotypes and misconceptions. Miss Pakistan World is now in its seventh year and has spun-off into many different types of pageant including Mrs Pakistan World and Mr Pakistan World.
One of the unique factors of this pageant is that it has never actually been held in Pakistan. Because of the fears over security contestants, which include girls from cities in Pakistan and those of Pakistani heritage from around the world, must fly to different destinations each year to compete.
After the crowning of Miss Pakistan World 2009 last month we thought it was a good time to catch up with Sonia.
Could you tell us a little about how you came to establish Miss Pakistan World? What is your experience with pageants and why did you feel Pakistan needed such a contest?
At the age of five I was always interested in competitions and pageants. At the age of 16 I won a title, Miss Catwalk at my local school in the Middle East, and that was my first motivation to represent Pakistan. I kept searching for Miss Pakistan on the internet but there was nothing that led me to the competition. I even asked the Pakistani Embassy if there was a competition held in Pakistan. My search brought me disappointment as there was no such thing as Miss Pakistan in Pakistan.
I joined the University of Ottawa for further education in business and there I was one of the committee members for the Pakistani Students Association. There I thought of launching the first pageant for Pakistan. The University of Ottawa gave students special rates and discounts on events. This was how the first Miss Pakistan World pageant took place, with girls initially just of Pakistani origin living in Canada. From there onwards it was moved to Toronto where the population of Pakistanis is the highest.
I always wanted to represent my country no matter what. But the only difference was that I wanted to represent myself as a moderate Pakistani. This was my Pakistan and the image of my Pakistan began with me first. Pakistan needed a modern image, and this was my way of contributing to my country.
How was the experience in the beginning? Did you encounter many difficulties?
The beginning was smooth with just a few difficulties. Some people tried to mix religion and culture into this event. We overcame that by bringing in the core elements of being Pakistani, which brought learning about Pakistan, and the teachings of Mohammad Ali Jinnah — the father of the nation.
There has always been a lot of confusion on whether there should be an entertainment industry in Pakistan. This was one of the issues created by hardliners that brought confusion into the Pakistani community. It will take a good 10 years to wipe this way of thinking as it has taken 100 years to build it up. As a result the entertainment industry of Pakistan at the moment is suffering tremendously with very little signs of improvement.
The entertainment industry is one that has no religion. People who bring religion into everything are people who don’t want to live and let live. Pakistan to me means, “Mohammad Ali Jinnah,” and nothing else!
As you have now been President of the contest for seven years, how do you feel it has grown?
The pageant has been growing in terms of territory and competition internationally. We have expanded to Mrs. Pakistan World, a pageant for married women (www.mrspakistan.com) besides the annual Miss Pakistan World. Every year there is a challenge in moulding the new Miss Pakistan World, as these girls have just a few role models to relate to. If this pageant was going on for 50 years, then the new Miss Pakistan would know exactly who to be like or compare themselves to. They would have their own role models. We are competing with countries that have a history of 100 years in pageantry. That itself is a challenge for us! But, every year when we compete with them, we feel we learn and grow. There have been 21 international pageants completed and seven local Miss Pakistan World pageants as well as three Mrs. Pakistan World pageants. We do a lot more international pageants as a single company compared to other pageant companies.
Is there anything you would have done differently if you had to establish the contest again?
No, I think I am satisfied with how things started and the interest generated. It is very difficult to convince hardliners, so instead of concentrating on the negative side we decided to keep on doing more. We started with one international pageant a year and finally went up to seven a year. I only wish that the political system of Pakistan had not changed to what it is today. I think we were better off in 2006, when we had better relations with several countries and a more progressive attitude.
How does it make you feel to not be able to hold the contest in Pakistan? Do you see this changing any time soon?
It’s sad to see Pakistan does not have proper backing and support for this industry. However, that is the case for the whole entertainment industry as all sectors are suffering from lack of financial and moral support. The thought did cross my mind to hold the show there when President Musharraf was in power. But, for the next 10 years, I would not recommend doing the pageant in Pakistan. We have to secure the safety of the show.
The contest has been subject to some criticism for not adhering to traditional values (e.g. bikini stories). What do you think about this?
Despite it being small, Pakistan does have music, fashion and movie industries. We are promoting being Pakistani and being Pakistani pertains to the nation and not the religion. A lot of people argue that Pakistan is synonymous with the religion as it was built on it. This is where we differ as the Founder of our Nation promoted secularism and tolerance, which is not followed by hardliners.
We are proud to have all religions existing in Pakistan. We as Muslims are a majority and respect moderate views and hence will promote the existence of all cultures and religions in Pakistan. Pakistan is a nation where the majority can enjoy their festivals freely. Pakistan means sports, music, dance, celebration, education, fashion, culture and of course pageants. The critics are the hardliners, who believe only their opinion matters. These people have no tolerance for others. Criticism used to bother us before but now we have understood the mentality of such people. They don’t want to live in peace and don’t want others to live in peace. So we ignore them and continue with full force.
What message are you trying to convey to the world with this contest?
My message to the world is that not all Pakistanis have one-track minds. There are moderate Pakistanis who love to promote peace and harmony between people. Miss Pakistan is a step towards showing a different Pakistan and a different set of Pakistani people. The world has put Pakistan in a bracket of extremist countries, and that is the image people my generation are trying to wipe out. My contribution to this cause may be not liked by conservatives but it is a step in bringing Pakistan on the map of peace loving nations.
What makes a Miss Pakistan World? What do they have to do during the contest and what innate qualities must they possess?
A Miss Pakistan is a bold Pakistani lady who possesses a will to bring her nation in front of several nations as a moderate country. Having a female represent the light side of Pakistan is a first for a lot of people and just her being present at several events in the Western world is a message sent to many westerners that Pakistan is not what they perceive it to be. The stereotypical behaviour of certain people who label Pakistan as an extremist country softens up a bit when they see a beautiful image of Pakistan during the pageant.
Intelligence, boldness, strength and a strong sense of patriotism is what makes a Miss Pakistan. The contest follows an exact pattern like the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants. The girls have everything from an evening gown portion to an essay writing round.
Would you like to see other countries, which have similar ways of thinking, hold such contests?
I think it is important to make women stand in the forefront of countries that are facing a lot of religious and political problems. It helps divert the attention of people to fun things and changes the perception of many people who view the nation in a negative way. Miss Pakistan World is just a fun concept, to show that Pakistan is a nation that has interest in other things like sports, fashion and pageants with people who are moderate and who refuse to follow a hard core pattern set by certain fundamentalists. There are many Muslim countries that have national beauty pageants in their respective countries: Malaysia, Egypt and Lebanon to name a few. We share close relations with Turkey and would like to keep our ideologies similar.
Where would you like to see the Miss Pakistan World pageant in 10 years?
The future of the contest lies in the hands of the political structure of Pakistan. If the government can safeguard its people then the pageant can be held there. In ten years I would like to see Miss Pakistan World as a stronger and bigger pageant. I cannot promise that it will be held in Pakistan, as it will take the people of Pakistan quite some time to change their thought process.
Pakistani women are liberated women who always wanted to be a part of such contests, but could not compete due to traditional pressures. I’m sure now that Miss Pakistan World has been going on for a good seven years, things have changed and more and more women want to represent Pakistan on a global scale and be patriotic about Pakistan by representing their nation in international beauty pageants. My goal would be to see Pakistan in the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants and go on to win it. Pakistani women are some of the most beautiful in the world.
I would like to let all the Pakistani women out there who would like to pursue their dreams and put Pakistan on the map of the most beautiful women in the world that they should be strong and go for it. The company stands strong and whoever would like to compete should apply, we are here for support. Pakistan needs a fresh change and Miss Pakistan World is the hope for a modern Pakistan and a celebration of the strong and bold Pakistani woman!
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