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The World Before Her

Premiere Date: September 16, 2013

'The World Before Her' in Context

The Miss India Pageant

The inaugural Miss India pageant was held in 1959, about 10 years after India gained independence, as a way to promote a new image of India internationally. Beautiful, young women showcased Indian textiles—traditional symbols of resistance to colonialism. It wasn’t until 1994, when two Indian pageant winners went on to become Miss World and Miss Universe, that Miss India was elevated to prominence.

Vimla Patel, the founding editor of the popular Indian women’s magazine Femina and an organizer of the first Miss India pageant, has often said that the pageant played a role in defining the modern Indian woman.

In Making Miss India Miss World: Constructing Gender, Power and the Nation in Postliberalization India, Susan Dewey writes, "When India became independent, there were, because of the various states in India, different kinds of women. There was a Maharashtrian woman, there was a Punjabi woman, but nobody had identified what was an Indian woman. There was a question mark here. Who is the Indian woman? Nobody knew. Who was going to put all these threads together and make one fabric? That was the question. And the answer to that was Femina and Miss India."

Every year, in August or September, Femina magazine and The Times of India print entry forms for the Miss India pageant that thousands of young women from all over the country fill out and submit. To be eligible, a woman must be taller than five feet six inches and under 25 years old. An entry form is accompanied by two photographs—one full body shot and one close-up—and the judges evaluate the women’s natural beauty and figures based on the photographs. Based on those criteria, approximately 100 women from across the county are selected as finalists to undergo second-round interviews. From there, 20 women are chosen to go to Mumbai to compete in Miss India, with the hopes of continuing on to compete in Miss World and Miss Universe.

For 30 days prior to the contest, contestants are housed in a hotel, where they undergo a strict grooming and training regime that includes two fitness classes a day, meals catered by a dietician, cosmology and skin bleaching sessions and seminars on fashion and modeling. Contestants are also advised on how to champion social causes without being overtly political, as a way of appealing to Indian middle classes, as well as the judges. The women are allowed to leave the hotel only a few times and are under close supervision.

While Miss India is seen by some as a gateway to social mobility, a majority of the contestants are urban and from northern India and have elite, cosmopolitan backgrounds. Pageant officials frame the Miss India pageant as a celebration of Hindu women’s empowerment in an attempt to align it with Hindu nationalist politics and avoid attacks for encouraging sexual exploitation of the female body.

Since 1996, there have been numerous protests against pageants in India. In 1996, when India hosted the Miss World pageant, demonstrations led by the Durga Vahini and other women’s nationalist movements raged across the country.

The Miss India pageant is watched by over one billion people worldwide.

» Dewey, Susan. Review of Making Miss India Miss World: Constructing Gender, Power, and the Nation in Postliberalization India. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008.
» Runkle, Susan. "Manufacturing Beauties." India Together, September 2004.
» The Times of India. "Miss World: India’s Winning Moments."

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