It was smoky, alcohol-free and there was no swimsuit contest, but Saturday’s party produced the first Miss Iraq in four decades and left all feeling a small victory had been won.
“Some people out there think we don’t love life,” said Humam al-Obeidi, one of the organisers, as the crowd spilled out of the Baghdad hotel ballroom where the pageant was held.
The jury chose Shaymaa Qasim, a tall, green-eyed 20-year-old from Iraq’s multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk.
The decision was popular with those in attendance, especially in the back rows, where young men with hispter beards and tight blazers had been standing on their chairs shouting her name.
“I’m very happy to see Iraq going forward,” the new beauty queen told AFP as she tried to fend off a scrum of admirers hoping to clinch a selfie. “This event was huge and put a smile on the faces of the Iraqis.”
Wearing her sash and holding her bouquet, Shaymaa Abdelrahman was fast learning her new trade, saying all the right things without ever breaking her smile.
There was more talking than glamorous strutting during the pageant as the contestants, in high heels and evening dresses that were sleeveless but below the knee, pitched their charity projects to the jury.
The pageant was designed to meet enough international criteria to propel its winner to the next Miss Universe contest, but some details, such as the Kalashnikov-toting guard at the door, set the event firmly in Iraq.
“We look forward to having a good ambassador for Iraq,” said Senan Kamel, the 2015 pageant’s artistic director, who also organised Iraq’s first fashion show in years last March.
One contestant said she would try to fix the Mosul dam, Iraq’s largest and reportedly in need of urgent repair work.
The winner said she would use her fame to forward educational initiatives, especially among the massive population of people who have been displaced by conflict.
The last time the Miss Iraq competition was held was in 1972, when the oil-rich country was on an upward track.