INDIA : Pageant Victories Inspire Debate Over Women's Roles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If China boasts the world's fleetest female swimmers, France the most select of vintages and Ukraine the greatest pole vaulter, where do the world's most comely women come from?

From India, of course. It's as official as these kinds of things ever get. This year, anyway.

Last Saturday, Aishwarya Rai, 21, an architecture student with gray-green eyes from Bombay, bested contestants from 86 other countries to become Miss World 1994. Back in May, raven-haired model Sushmita Sen, 18, of New Delhi became the first Indian to be chosen Miss Universe.

For India, it was an unprecedented winning combination. Some people felt as jubilant as if the country had received an armful of Nobel Prizes or Olympic medals. The unexpected honors paid to two young Indian women were also debated for what they signaled about India--its international image, the place of women in its society and its attitudes toward sex.

"It's a victory for the nation. The Indian subcontinent has come into the limelight," said a happy Deepa Bhatia, an executive in the advertising section of Femina, a woman's magazine. Before going international, Sen won this year's title and Rai was the runner-up in the annual Femina Miss India pageant.

The cheering was loud but not unanimous. Some in India brand beauty contests as the epitome of Western prurience or sexism. After Sen's triumph in Manila, a publication of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) blasted the whole idea of such contests as foreign and immoral, and accused Sen of denigrating the rich cultural tradition of Bengal, the land of her forebears.

When the new Miss Universe rode a buggy in a victory parade through New Delhi in September, an incensed lawyer filed a criminal complaint against her for "insult and dishonor to the national flag." Sen had held onto the Indian tricolor as she danced and threw kisses to the crowd.

None of that peevishness greeted the beaming Rai's victory last weekend in Sun City, South Africa.

The Bombayite, recipient of prizes and gifts worth more than $500,000, said her first goal would be to show "compassion for the underprivileged."

"Thank you, India, for what you did for me, for this opportunity," she said, fighting back tears, after the diadem was placed on her head.

Some Indians saw the back-to-back titles as international acceptance of their notions of womanhood and style as the country increasingly opens up to the outside world.

"Time has come for the women of the West to stop and look back at India, that Indian women are not lagging behind in any manner. They have both talent and beauty," said Kavita Dewidi, an apprentice in Odissi, the traditional dance form in the eastern state of Orissa.

But a New Delhi social scientist said it is important to separate image from reality, and not to forget the perilous lives many Indian women lead. Feminist researchers say a rape is recorded every 54 minutes in India. Girls' enrollment in school is 30% to 40% lower than that of boys. Of the 12 million girls born each year, a quarter may not live to celebrate their 15th birthday.

"Anything that promotes India and brings it recognition is something great, and if these ladies have managed to make a dent in the Western mind that India is not a mythical place with tigers running round on the streets, it's a great thing," said the social scientist, who spoke on condition she not be identified. "But their lives are completely divorced from what is happening with most Indian women."

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