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IMG: Gersh Kuntzman
Beauty is a Beast  
What the well-dressed Miss Afghanistan wore under her sash—and why it mattered to students of world affairs  

    Nov. 3 —  If you want to get an idea how bogged down we’re getting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t look at the list of two or three dead soldiers that shows up in your newspaper every morning. Click here and look at the woman in the red bikini.  

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       NOW, I PROBABLY just lost the attention of all my male readers by linking them to a picture of a woman in a bikini, but there’s a reason why this particular picture of a woman in a bikini (did I mention that she’s, like, totally hot?) is of vital interest to world affairs.
       That’s because the woman spilling out of the red bikini is none other than Vida Samadzai, a 26-year-old college student and Afghani refugee who will compete next week in the Miss Earth pageant as Miss Afghanistan.
       Samadzai is the first person to don a Miss Afghanistan sash since 1972—when Afghanistan was experiencing the closest thing to freedom, economic development and national dignity that it’s seen in years. Is there a link between the existence of a Miss Afghanistan (have I mentioned that she’s totally hot?) and freedom? You wouldn’t know it from the way Afghanis reacted last week, when they learned that an entirely hot refugee from their troubled country was representing them in a bikini.
       “We condemn Vida Samadzai,” said the country’s Minister for Women’s Affairs, Habiba Surabi. “She is not representing Afghanistan’s women, and this is not women’s freedom. In the name of women’s freedom, what this Afghan girl has done is not freedom but is lascivious.”
       Surabi’s comments were mild compared to the copious “man-on-the-bombed-out-street” interviews from Kabul that ran all week in the international press.
       “She is representing herself, not Afghanistan,” sneered Muhammad Yusuf, 26.
       “It’s wrong for a country like Afghanistan,” Ahmed Munir Shehzad, 22, concurred. “This is not a good thing.” Like others, he pointed out that dressing in a bikini is a violation of Islam’s Shariah laws (in other words, it ain’t Kosher). Of course, there is one problem with this line of thinking: A few million tons of American ordnance has pretty much ensured that Shariah isn’t calling the shots in Afghanistan anymore.
       Now, as a proud American, you might be sitting there thinking that these Afghanis are crazy to object to having a woman who fled the Taliban in 1996— especially one this hot—represent them in a Western-style beauty pageant. After all, is she not ushering them into the future, a future complete with our notions of democracy, equality for women, free markets and peace? After all, who better than America to help Afghanistan make the difficult transition from the Stone Age to the Supermodel Age in one fell swoop?
       Well, almost anyone, actually. Let’s face it, we’re so full of ourselves that we think we can export democracy to Afghanistan and no one is going to complain when we also export the decadence that comes with it (not the least of which is sex and gender values that equate female empowerment with winning a swimsuit competition).
       Sure, most Afghanis understand that their country’s patriarchal, sexist, oppressive society—burqas? No schooling for girls?—simply cannot survive in the 21st century if Afghanistan is to take its place among the community of nations. But must Afghan society swing all the way in the other direction? Is there no middle ground between freedom and “The Bachelor”?
       That’s what Surabi meant when she said that Afghan women should not demonstrate their worth by using their “beauty or bodies,” but by highlighting their skills and knowledge. That’s nice. If someone made me God and my first job was to write a new Constitution to govern the entire world, the requirement to judge people by their abilities instead of their looks would be Article 1, Section 1. But Afghanistan is about to wake up and smell the opium: For better or worse (or for even more worse), the only way that women are given a chance to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in the Western world is by using their “beauty or bodies.” And if you don’t like it, there are plenty of Taliban thugs hanging around Kandahar who would love to run the country again.
       For her part, Samadzai is no dummy. She studies (what else?) mass media at the University of California. As a student of Western media imagery, she knows how the game is played. “I would like to make people aware that, as Afghan women, we are talented, intelligent and beautiful,” she told Reuters when asked about the bikini controversy (for a refresher course, click here.)
       To better understand the gap between Afghan society and our own, I could’ve called a lot of academics, but since the central theme of this article is the current Miss Afghanistan’s intoxicating pulchritude, I called the only person in the world who understands the issue: The original Miss Afghanistan, Zohra Daoud, who represented her homeland in the Miss Universe contest in 1972. She fled the country shortly after the Soviet invasion of 1980 and came to the United States as a penniless refugee. But she worked hard and became a poster child (albeit one without a bikini) for the American dream.
       Still, to establish Daoud’s credentials, I asked her the most important question: Do you think that the current Miss Afghanistan is, like, totally hot?
       “Yes, she is beautiful. She has a beautiful body,” Daoud told me by phone from her Malibu, California home. Once we had established that Daoud understood the central issue, the interview proceeded. I needed to know whether appearing in a bikini was, in fact, antithetical to Afghani values.
       “There was no swimsuit in my contest because Afghan society was conservative even then,” she said. “And now, after 22 years of war and jihad and the Taliban, we are even more conservative.”
       But then wouldn’t a bikini-clad Miss Afghanistan—and not an ugly one, either!—help push the country towards a new openness? (This wasn’t me talking, of course, but that teeny tiny part of me that admits that Western civilization isn’t all bad.) Wouldn’t overt female sexuality help break down the old walls? Daoud disagreed.
       “Women in Afghanistan are fighting just to go to school and get health care,” she said. “Wearing swimsuits doesn’t help because the fundamentalists point to it and say, ‘See? We don’t want to have anything to do with the West.’ Islamic society looks at America and sees nude women, alcohol, drugs, prostitution, but not the freedom of choice, the human rights, etc. They see only the negative.”
       Come on, could it really be true that Afghan men want to sit around and plot the next World Trade Center bombing rather than staring at pictures of bikini-clad women? Isn’t there something inherently pacifying about Western decadence?
       “We need law-and-order first and then democracy, freedom and economic opportunity later,” she said. Perhaps, but when, exactly, do hot women in red bikinis enter the picture?

Gersh Kuntzman is also Brooklyn bureau chief for The New York Post. His website is at

Vida Samadzai in her red bikini
IMG: Vida Samadzai
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