An Indian Woman Won ‘Mrs. World 2022.’ But Why Do We Still Have a Separate Beauty Pageant For Married Women?


Dec 20, 2022


Image Credit: Instagram (@mrsindiainc)

Sargam Koushal, 32, a teacher-turned-model from Jammu, won the title of “Mrs. World 2022” on Sunday. Initially buried under the media frenzy surrounding the world cup, the news of her victory is finally taking over the social media discourse in India — especially so, since the last and only time an Indian woman won the title was 21 years ago when model, actor, and physician Aditi Govitrikar was crowned “Mrs. World 2001.”

Indians are understandably proud of Koushal’s success on the global stage. In doing so, though, we’re not only continuing to glorify competitions that promote a Euro-centric aesthetic homogeneity and objectify female bodies, but also celebrating a pageant whose very existence is rooted in the idea that women’s identities are defined by their marital status — single, married, divorced, widowed.

The burning question is: how does a piece of paper recognizing a woman’s relationship with a man make a difference large enough for her to be slotted under an entirely different category? Age, it appears, is a differentiator, here — women participating in Miss India must be between the ages of 18 and 28, while those taking part in Mrs. India must be aged between 21 to 37. To begin with, there’s a significant overlap, here, which makes it difficult to justify a whole other pageant for married women.

Commenting on the Mrs. Maharashtra pageant in 2018, writer Rehana Munir had noted in Hindustan Times, “I immediately imagined a pageant for divorcée. A conglomeration of mysterious, fearsome, failed brides who take the stage. A pageant of fast-talking, quick-thinking, rule-breaking, whisky-swilling fashionistas who eat men like air. Except, I can’t think of any two divorcée who are alike. In fact, they look and behave pretty much like [single, married, and widowed women].”

Patriarchy, however, isn’t the only scourge plaguing pageants; its close cousin, heteronormativity, too, is conspicuously present — and functional — in the realm of pageants.

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There are two more categories for pageant aspirants in India: Mrs. India Finesse, for women aged between 38 to 50 years; and Mrs. India Gracious, for women between the ages of 51 and 60 years. The fact that these categories are suffixed by a “Mrs.” automatically debars unmarried women beyond the age of 28 from participating in the pageants — reinforcing the idea that by the time a woman turns 29, she must be married. And since India doesn’t recognize non-heterosexual marriages yet, a significant portion of the queer community is naturally excluded.

Pageants like Mrs. World — although hailed for giving married women an “identity” of their own and a “strong platform… to showcase their personality and potential” — are, ultimately, yet another agent of the patriarchy. The very idea that married women need a beauty pageant to forge a distinct sense of identity for themselves normalizes a pernicious sexist expectation society has of women: of losing their independence and individuality the moment they’re in a legally-recognized heterosexual relationship.

As for the argument that beauty pageants bestow married women with the privilege of a platform, perhaps, the most obvious counter is: why does it necessarily have to be a beauty pageant, and not a dance, music, arts, or science-based competition? At the end of the day, if the goal is to showcase one’s skills, is it absolutely relevant to add narrow, unrealistic standards of beauty — already known for driving people to develop eating disorders — into the mix?

“The thing about a sash is its tendency to reduce everything to a label. In order to win, you must first conform and then outshine. In a world where expectations from women are unrealistic, here is a literal manifestation of a pressure-cooker environment where women are pitted against one another,” Munir continued. “The most unfortunate part about such pageants is that it takes the original problems about women’s beauty pageants and compounds them with another issue: classifying women into categories based on their marital status.”

In a way, then, the categorizations in beauty pageants serve as a means to bolster patriarchal values, but also uphold heteronormativity.


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.


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