Disqualified for being a single mother: Miss Ukraine 2018 on the punishment of being a woman

Days ago, Joyce Prado, Miss Bolivia, was stripped of her crown, ‘unable to fulfil her obligations’ after becoming pregnant.  Why? Because according to the Miss Universe rules, “contestants may not be married or pregnant. They must not have ever been married, not had a marriage annulled nor given birth to, or parented a child. The titleholders are also required to remain unmarried throughout their reign.”

Last year, I was crowned Miss Ukraine 2018 and hours later dethroned for I had been found guilty of being a single mother. ‘You lied’ ‘You had a baby at the age of 19 and then got divorced. What kind of a role model are you?’ ‘You don’t deserve the title’ ‘There are other contests for women with children’, ‘If you don’t like the rules, don’t participate’ ‘You should have been a proud mom but you concealed your child. What kind of a mother are you?’ ‘Beauty pageants are a meat market. What would you expect?’, ‘It’s for the welfare of the children. If you win, you spend a year travelling the world. It’s a job – you are paid to be a global ambassador.’

These were the sorts of accusations I had to face. But they all missed the point.

What happened to me was not unique to the beauty pageants world. The first Miss World who was forced to quit was  Helen Morgan back in 1974. She won the title but just a few days later the tabloids revealed she was a single mother. She was spared of her crown.

In 2011, Keeley Myers qualified to take part in Miss Manchester. When she confessed to having recently given birth to a baby, at the time aged 17 weeks, she was disqualified. Kris’ina Jagpal, Miss Birmingham 2012, spoke against these rules, supported by Annette Edwards, former Miss Birmingham, ex-model and a mother of 10.

In 2015, the news broke out that Dhakirah Salim, 19, had decided to enter Miss England contest with her sister but was barred from competition because she had a daughter. And again, Angie Beasley, Director of Miss England, repeated her mantra that ‘the rules were in place to protect the ‘family unit’ because of the winner’s demanding schedule.’

Every time the media report on a similar story, it causes a small wave of public interest but we need a storm to cause real change.

There are four big beauty pageants in the world– Miss World(London, UK), Miss Universe(New York, USA), Miss International(Tokyo, Japan), and Miss Earth(Manila, The Philippines). Together, these four global events attract the audience of millions, and thousands of young women who apply to be part of them. For many, winning a pageant is a childhood dream. And although critics may argue that these events are inherently sexist and designed to objectify women, it is hard to deny the career potential and the real value that the participating girls receive with the crown. Many go on to become TV and media personalities, some gain success as lawyers, actresses, singers, or fashion models. And for some women it is simply an opportunity to increase their profiles as media influencers which these days is a great boost to financial success.

However well these global competitions may serve some women in achieving their dreams and becoming global ambassadors for a good cause, some of us are still denied these opportunities.

All Big Four international beauty pageants share and perpetuate the sexist and misogynistic ideology which labels single mothers and divorced women as damaged goods; assumes that pregnant women are incapable of performing their duties at work; deprives women of their agency to choose autonomously whether to commit to a demanding life and work style or not; implies that women should be the sole caregivers to their children, and so on.

The rules published on the websites of these organisations state that women competing in the pageants must qualify as natural born females, never been married, single, never given birth. Miss Universe pushes further by requesting that women entering the competition must have never even parented a child and are also required to remain unmarried throughout their reign.

In contrast, Mister World (administered by Miss World Organisation) is looking for guys who look great and have a fun personality – and are up for the fun and adventure. There are no rules outlawing fatherhood or civil partnership for men in the same competition. Because the world is just tougher on women.

Beinga woman who has juggled single parenting, studying and working since the age of 19, it makes me furious, angry… As long as I remember I believed in myself and I pursued with my education never compromising between motherhood and education because I don’t think women should. I also found my way to modelling and got contracted to the top agencies in the world walking the runways of Paris, Milan and London, nursing my child between the photo shoots, exams, lectures and readings. It was my choice of how I wanted to live my life and I never complained. My career was going well but I knew I could achieve more for myself and my son. Because there shouldn’t be limits to professional aspirations – isn’t this what the women empowerment movement tells us?

The Miss beauty pageants masking under the alleged high family values completely dismiss women’s agency in taking control over their bodies, careers, and private lives. Under the banners of empowerment, cultural exchange, environmentalism, and purpose, the organisers of these competitions are covering the embedded sexist ideology of the structures of which women around the world are trying to take advantage. As Laura Bates once wrote, ‘no matter how hard women try to play by society’s sexist rules, they still can’t win’.

But I want to change this. I wish for all the single moms out there to feel proud, not ashamed, for the love they give to their babies every moment of day and night, for the strength they have to endure hardships alone, for the success they can achieve without embarrassment. Society has to accept that women can be whoever they want and choose to be. Single moms should be allowed to be role models, mothers should be allowed careers in any profession, and fathers must be allowed to be supportive. No one has the right to take opportunities away from me because I am a mother.

I know that for some people it may seem difficult to relate to my story because, well, beauty pageants are wrong and have become obsolete. Or it’s somehow not a real problem – yes, I have heard this before when I called a legal helpline. Or it’s a such a small problem compared to the struggles of women dealing with domestic abuse and sexual assault. To this I say that there are millions of other women’s small problems and experiences which are just as much discounted, dismissed, disregarded.And this is how we end up with an elephant in the room, with sexual harassment in the workplace, bullying of teenage girls at schools, and domestic abuse in our private lives. Our lives are comprised of small experiences of ordinary women which have been dismissed as non-important.And that is why I will keep on fighting and building coalitions of strong women aiming to cause a tsunami of change until all of us, regardless of occupation, civil status, age or sexuality, feel that the world is fairer.

Veronika Didusenko, Miss Ukraine 2018 (dq’ed for being a single mother). Activist, mathematician, mother to Alex, 4.

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