Miss Afghanistan knew she was taking a risk when she strutted across a Manila catwalk in a bright red bikini.
"I did understand," said Vida Samadzai, a 25-year-old Cal State Fullerton student, "that it would probably not be acceptable in my society."
But she did not know she would be denounced by the government of her native land, criticized by fellow Afghans -- even in the U.S. -- and at the same time hailed by others as a role model for girls and women in the "new Afghanistan."
All because of a bikini -- and a modest one at that.
Samadzai is back in Orange County after competing this month in the international Miss Earth pageant in Manila. She did not win. She didn't even make it to the semifinals. But she did inspire judges to bestow a special prize: a "beauty for a cause award" to Miss Afghanistan for "symbolizing the newfound confidence, courage and spirit of today's women."
Countries such as Afghanistan that are strongly influenced by Islamic standards of dress and behavior for women do not usually participate in international beauty pageants. The first and last time there was an official Miss Afghanistan was 1972, and even then the winner didn't wear a swimsuit on stage or compete internationally.
Enter Samadzai, who immigrated in 1996 to attend college in the United States. As she worked toward her degree -- a double major in international business and communications -- she got the idea of entering beauty contests to draw attention to her favorite causes, such as the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the welfare of women and children in her native country.
Last year, Samadzai, a U.S. citizen whose siblings and parents also now live in the United States, entered the Ms. America International competition and placed third.
This year she entered the Miss Earth contest, a 2-year-old pageant with an environmental theme. Under contest rules, countries such as Afghanistan that do not have regional pageants to select participants may be represented by natives who live abroad.
Nominated by Susan Jeske of Orange County, a former Ms. America, Samadzai says she had no idea that turmoil in the Middle East and concern about Islamic fundamentalism would make her appearance in a swimsuit fodder for the international press.
"I did not know that it would cause this much stir," Samadzai said. "It was a shock."
In the past week, she has been interviewed by CNN, BBC, Time, Marie Claire magazine and other international news outlets. The Afghan Embassy in Washington fielded so many calls that it was forced to issue a statement that her appearance was not endorsed by the government. The minister of women's affairs denounced Samadzai for participating in a "lascivious" entertainment for men.
A senior Afghan justice official even said she could face criminal charges if she returns to the country.
Still, now that she's had time to reflect, Samadzai said there is little she would do differently. She would still don the bikini wearing the Afghanistan sash -- and she would still speak out on behalf of Afghan women, who have the same rights as women of any other country, she said.
"If I offended some people, some women in Afghanistan, I apologize," she said. "I represent myself.... Afghan women should be allowed to do anything they want. Their rights shouldn't be suppressed. They should speak their mind. Be whatever they want to be."
People are captivated by her story, Samadzai thinks, because she exercised her freedom as an Afghan American -- a freedom she would not have had in Afghanistan, where until recently women were forced to cover themselves with burkas and could not even attend school.
"I have received so many positive e-mails, letters and cards. I don't even know from whom," Samadzai said. "I get so much support from moms, even dads, girls, saying, 'Thanks for opening the door for the rest of us.' "
Others in the Afghan American community, however, offer mixed messages of support and concern.
Internet message groups offer some encouragement: "Wake up, Afghanistan!" and "You go girl!"
But some other immigrants say she has done a disservice to her culture and her religion. They question, as many other Americans do, why beauty and bikinis are prized over intellect.
Even Zohra Daoud, the first and only official Miss Afghanistan, wonders whether Samadzai was wise to flaunt her Western values on that runway in Manila before an international audience. "She's definitely a talented girl, very beautiful and very courageous," said Daoud, who now lives in Malibu. "She lives in a free society. She has the right to do whatever she wanted to do.
"But this doesn't help Afghan women at all," Daoud said. "This is an act of rebellion. She rebelled against authority. She rebelled against Afghan values."
Another Afghan immigrant to Orange County, Sadiq Tawfiq, said he also had mixed feelings.
"I understand why people are sensitive. It goes against the religion and, besides the religion, the culture," said Tawfiq, the 49-year-old owner of Khyber Pass, a Laguna Beach art gallery.
Though he does not necessarily support what she did, he admires her courage.
"I look at this as a positive situation," Tawfiq said. "I hope she uses the attention [to accomplish] the good things she can do for the orphans and the women."
Whether or not she sought the role, Samadzai now finds herself committed to representing the cause of liberated Afghan women. She says she hopes the attention will help people focus on the struggles of Afghan people who are trying to rebuild their country after more than two decades of war. She is encouraging people to raise money. She has spent three months in Pakistan, working at refugee camps.
Now Samadzai is working on a film about being a young Afghan American, the generation gap and the struggle to balance progressive Western culture with conservative Islamic values.
When the controversy dies down, people may remember Miss Afghanistan only for the bikini. They may forget that in another part of the competition she also wore a traditional costume: green pants, a maroon and gold dress and a veil.
"I am an Afghan American," Samadzai said. "I live in America."