'Financial independence is the best form of empowerment', says Mrs UAE World Debanjali Kamstra

She talks about why being a multi-hyphenate and a woman are not mutually exclusive and how pageants endorse that


Somya Mehta

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Debanjali Kamstra with husband Christiaan Kamstra and kids Tiffany and Victoria Kamstra
Debanjali Kamstra with husband Christiaan Kamstra and kids Tiffany and Victoria Kamstra

Published: Thu 27 Jan 2022, 11:39 PM

Last updated: Mon 3 Jul 2023, 3:06 PM

The roots of the Mrs World title can be traced back to 1984 when it became the first ever beauty pageant for married women, causing a revolutionary shift in perspective towards women in wedlock. It meant that a woman’s wedding day no longer signified the culmination of her individuality, dreams and aspirations, that a woman, even after marriage, could have aspirations and be aspirational.

Serving as the biggest marital pageant, 38 years into its existence, Mrs World International saw Debanjali Kamstra, 35, become the first ever candidate to represent the UAE on the global stage, becoming Mrs UAE World. On January 15, the Dubai-based entrepreneur and mum-of-two made it to the top three contestants for Mrs World 2022, emerging as second runners-up.

Although she didn’t end up wearing the crown, Kamstra superseded 57 other contestants to make it to the final three. “I already felt so happy and satisfied to have even made it to that level. At the end of the day everyone wants the crown. But it’s the judges’ decision. They have certain things they want to focus on for the year, so it’s about who fits that role the best,” says Kamstra. It was Shaylyn Ford, Mrs America, who ultimately won the pageant, being crowned by the reigning Mrs World Ireland, Kate Schneider.

‘My business is my first baby’

Originally hailing from Kolkata, India, Kamstra has been residing in the UAE for over 13 years now. “India gave birth to me but the UAE adopted and nurtured me,” says the pageant holder who came to the UAE as Emirates cabin crew over a decade ago. “The country has given a platform not only to me but to several people, to achieve their dreams.”

Two years into her move, Kamstra gave up her career in aviation hospitality to launch her own interior fit-out firm, Veloche, which soon became a key player in the industry. “I started my company in 2011, when I was not married and didn’t have any children. My business is my first baby. I was more concerned about Veloche when I decided to go for Mrs World. I’m very much a businessperson,” says Kamstra.

At 24, the entrepreneur would introduce herself as the manager of the company and not the founder. “A lot of our clients are in the construction industry, which has conventionally been male-dominated. I thought if I told them that I’m the main person in charge, they would doubt our ability to handle the projects and not take me seriously.” Now, 11 years later, there’s no shying away from the centrestage for Kamstra, who takes pride in being the managing director of her company.

“I’ve had to change my business cards a few times (laughs). We started out with four employees and now we have over a hundred team members. We have also expanded into other fields and opened a branch in the UK,” says Kamstra, who’s an architect by profession. “Now, when I look back, I ask myself would I have been able to start a business in India? I don’t think so.”

Beauty in unity

Though not an Emirati, Kamstra has not shied away from representing the UAE on an international level. But her initiative also drew in some criticism on social media. “If you check Facebook, you’ll see a lot of comments questioning why I’m representing the UAE when I’m not originally from here. But the question is, did anybody stop the others from applying? The UAE consists of so many expats and so many diverse cultures. The nation is also growing with the commitment of all these nationalities coming together and making the UAE their home. That’s also the essence of being “united”,” she added.

“When I applied, there was no beauty pageant in the UAE. There is no central body that governs Mrs UAE here. I was appointed by the Mrs World organisation, who selected me as pioneer Mrs UAE World,” says Kamstra. “Most countries are represented in Mrs World International, so why not the UAE when this is such a beautiful country with so many beautiful people.” As part of this endeavour, Kamstra plans to start a home-grown organisation that can groom and train women who are interested in pageants, facilitating the mentorship she didn’t have.

Put a crown on it!

Coming from a middle-class family with a conservative mindset, Kamstra never saw the limelight or had the privileges she now enjoys, being a successful businesswoman and pageant holder. “Being from India, we watched people like Sushmita Sen, Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra, so there was always a voice that said, ‘You should also do something like this.’ But growing up, I never thought I’d actively pursue it,” says the 35-year-old entrepreneur.

So what led to Kamstra’s chase to the crown? “Post my second pregnancy, I had put on a lot of weight. I lost 30 kilos over two years. A lot of people would always come up to me and acknowledge how I continued working on myself even post-pregnancy. It wasn’t that I had to lose the weight. Beauty isn’t defined with a body shape but every individual can have their own preferences,” she mentions.

“When I was unmarried, I was almost in the same shape I am in now. It was my own initiative to go back to being fitter. I started exercising for the first time after my second child was born and started enjoying it. Whenever I’d meet other women, mothers too, they’d wonder how I managed it, having kids and running my own business,” says Kamstra. “That’s when I thought to myself, why don’t I do something that would give a crown to my accomplishments?”

Are pageants outdated?

While beauty contests are widely celebrated, there have also been arguments in recent years that deem the idea of women gathering together to compete for a crown — judged, at large, for their appearance — as regressive and redundant. But does the same argument hold true for marital pageants? Or could it be a way for married women to take back their diminished agency?

“You can be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a businesswoman and still take part in a beauty pageant. There’s no excuse saying, ‘I’m busy, I can’t work on myself’ or ‘Now that I’m married, my life is over’,” says Kamstra. “I can only talk about Mrs World as I have not participated in any other pageants. There’s no monetary gain in this pageant. So what motivates a woman to go to that extent to take part in it? It’s a fairly expensive process. Is it just to be in the limelight? That you can actually even pay for and it’ll work out much cheaper. It’s a very hectic physical and mental exercise,” she adds.

There can be many reasons for one to take part in a pageant, according to Kamstra. “First, you challenge yourself to see if you have what it takes. Second, you’re not just there as yourself, you’re representing the entire country. When they asked me why I wanted to be Mrs World, I said at the age of 35, I have achieved success in my business, my husband and kids love me but I felt I hadn’t given back to the society. Becoming Mrs World would give me the platform to do that,” she mentions. As part of her advocacies, Kamstra also aims to make progress for people of determination in the country and make the world a more inclusive place.

But do strong, financially independent women still need a pageant to make important contributions to society? “Whenever you want to do something in life, you always need a push. You want to prove something to yourself and others around you. When you enter a pageant, you get to prove certain things and streamline opportunities for yourself. It gives you a platform to make your voice louder,” responds Kamstra.

“We get to show people that yes, we’re beautiful, yes, we’re intelligent, we’re self-confident and we still want to contribute to the society. It’s not only those who are working for non-profit organisations. We’re all responsible,” she says.

Can women have it all?

Kamstra believes women have to step forward and tell the society, “This is what we want to do.” When asked if she’s faced judgement for her choices as a woman and a mother, she adds, “People will judge you but it’s up to you what to take and what to discard. The problem is when you judge yourself. You don’t have to worry about what people think of you unless they’re your source of income or your financial provider. For women, financial independence is the best form of empowerment.”

While motherhood can be quite an all-consuming feat, Kamstra believes it’s important to keep a healthy balance and prioritise looking after yourself. “As long as you give your children quality time, that’s more important than the quantity of time. Spending the entire day with your children and not being able to achieve your dreams, it’s sacrificing a major part of your life. To be a better person, you have to be happy within,” says Kamstra, adding that her husband’s support has played a pivotal role.

On the family front, Kamstra admits she has been blessed with a family that truly understands her dreams and aspirations. The Indian entrepreneur is married to Christiaan Kamstra, a South African, who’s also part of her interiors venture. “My husband has always believed in me. He knew I’d come back with some glory,” she adds. “My family lives with me in Dubai and helps take care of my kids. So all of this factors in to the decisions I’m able to make,” says Kamstra.

But does a woman have to have it all? “We don’t have to do everything but the question is can you do it? The answer is yes. If you want to do it, then you can. Nobody should tell you, ‘You’ve done this much, so it’s enough.’ There’s no such thing as enough,” believes Kamstra. The deeper and more complicated challenge, perhaps, then remains to know what one wants. Many women might not have the answer to it and many might not be empowered enough to figure it out. And the ones that do know — might risk being lost in translation.


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