It was smoky, alcohol-free and there was not a bikini in sight, but organisers have hailed the first Miss Iraq beauty pageant in four decades as a victory against the tyranny of war.
“What we’re hoping to accomplish is to make Iraq’s voice heard, show that it is still alive, that its heart is still beating,” said Senan Kamel, the 2015 pageant’s artistic director.
“Some people out there think we don’t love life,” said Humam al-Obeidi, one of the pageant organisers, as the crowd spilled out of the Baghdad hotel ballroom where the pageant was held.
Shaymaa Abdelrahman, a 20-year-old from the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, was crowned the winner, becoming the first person to hold the title of Miss Iraq since the event was last held in 1972.
The jury’s decision was popular with the audience, especially in the back rows, where young men with beards and tight blazers had been standing on their chairs shouting her name.
“I’m very happy to see Iraq going forward,” Abdelrahman said as she tried to fend off a scrum of admirers. “This event was huge and put a smile on the faces of the Iraqis.”
There was more talking than posing during the pageant as the contestants, in high heels and evening dresses that were sleeveless but fell below the knee, pitched their charity projects to the jury.
The pageant was designed to meet enough international criteria to allow its winner to attend the next Miss Universe contest, but some elements, such as the guard carrying a Kalashnikov at the door, were uniquely Iraqi.
Abdelrahman said she would use her fame to promote education initiatives, especially among the massive population of people who have been displaced by conflict.
Another contestant said she would try to fix the Mosul dam, Iraq’s largest and reportedly in need of urgent repair work, “because it threatened the entire country.”
In the week running up to the event, the eight finalists embarked on a string of pre-pageant activities, including a visit to a camp for displaced people in Baghdad.
Speaking during a tree-planting ceremony near the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon on Thursday, Suzan Amer, a 22-year-old from the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniyah said the pageant was more than a mere distraction in Iraq.
“It’s my first time doing anything like this but it’s an experience I wanted to be part of. I think Iraq needs events like these,” she said.
Iraq is wracked by an ongoing war against the Islamic State, the world’s most brutal jihadist organisation, and plagued by deep sectarian tensions and corruption.
The unrest forced the delay of the contest, which was originally supposed to take place in October. Several participants reportedly pulled out of the event following death threats.
But the pageant, which culminated with the jury announcing the winner as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy filled the ballroom, left participants, organisers and guests feeling that beating the gloom was part of the war effort.
“I think it is wonderful; it makes you feel things can come back to normal,” said veteran human rights activist Hana Edwar.
The last time the Miss Iraq competition was held was in 1972, when the oil-rich country was stable and prosperous.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report