Miss S'pore in top 16 of controversy-filled Miss Universe 2021 pageant held in Israel

The pageant faced calls of boycott even before it started.

Kayla Wong | December 13, 2021, 02:22 PM

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Singaporean Nandita Banna, 21, emerged as one of the 16 semi-finalists of the recently-concluded Miss Universe 2021 held in Israel.

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The double degree student at Singapore Management University -- currently pursuing Business Management and Information Systems (Business Analytics) -- was crowned Miss Universe Singapore on Sep. 17.

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This year's pageant was won by India.

Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned the winner of the 70th edition of the pageant, while the runner-up and second finalist were Miss Paraguay Nadia Ferreira and Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane respectively.

This is not the first time a Singaporean has reached the semi-finals of the beauty pageant -- Kathie Lee Lee Beng landed in eighth place in 1983, while Marion Nicole Teo secured the ninth spot in 1987.

Singapore has sent representatives to the contest as early as 1954, and has always been represented every year since 1966.

The other top 15 contestants were from the following countries: France, Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, Japan, Great Britain, the U.S., India, Vietnam, Aruba, Paraguay, the Philippines, Venezuela, and South Africa.

Political dimension to this year's pageant

This year's competition, held in Israel for the first time, had a decidedly political aspect to it.

It started amid calls of boycott due to Israel's settlement policy that has displaced tens of thousands of Palestinians.

International events hosted in Israel have regularly faced such calls for boycott due to allegations of the state discriminating against Palestinians and even committing "apartheid" -- a claim that Israel had always denied.

South Africa's Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts had called on its contestant Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane to steer clear of Eilat, the southern city where the pageant was held, citing "atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians", AFP reported.

They even withdrew their support for her.

Nevertheless, Mswane chose to go to the resort city and compete, relying on support from the Miss South Africa organisation, CNN reported.

Mandla Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela -- South Africa's first Black president -- joined in the calls for boycott as well, citing the "occupation and cruel treatment of Palestinians at the hands of the apartheid Israel regime", DW News reported.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel urged participants to withdraw as well in order to "avoid complicity in Israel's apartheid regime and its violation of Palestinian human rights".

Bahrain and Morocco sent representatives to the pageant -- both Muslim-majority countries normalised relations with Israel in 2020, while it was the first time since 1978 that Morocco has sent its local winner.

Malaysia and Indonesia -- both Muslim-majority countries -- did not send representatives, citing reasons related to the pandemic.

The United Arab Emirates, which also normalised relations with Israel in 2020, did not send a contestant too, citing "time constraints" and the pandemic.

Criticised for being culturally insensitive

The pageant also came under fire when contestants were criticised for being culturally insensitive.

A series of photos with the hashtag @visitisrael, where contestants were seen wearing traditional Palestinian dresses and making sweets, sparked an uproar on social media.

Social media users were angered as the organiser and contestants were seen as presenting Palestinian culture as Israeli culture without giving recognition to the former, and worse, making use of the Palestinians' culture while mistreating their people.

Miss Philippines Beatrice Luigi Gomez, who posted the tour's title "Day in the life of a Bedouin" as the caption on her picture, was also criticised by Yara Hawari, a senior analyst at Palestinian Policy Network, a purportedly independent think tank, of appropriating Palestinian culture.

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According to a spokesperson from Israel's tourism ministry, the country was approached back in May to host the contest as they had reached a high vaccination rate by then, CNN reported.

The contest was started in 1952 in the U.S. after a Miss America winner Yolande Betbeze refused to wear a swimsuit by one of the sponsors, who went on to found Miss USA and Miss Universe.

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Top images via Nandita Banna & Beatrice Luigi Gomez's Instagram pages