Far from the cliched calls for world peace, Sudanese beauty queen Natalina Yaqoub’s mission is a little closer to home.
Since being crowned Miss Nuba Mountains, she has used her title to appeal to the government for an urgent end to the bombing in the region, where her family still lives.
“My home is in the heart of the conflict. I have to say something because I have a platform and my people are depending on me,” said the 23-year-old, who competed with 25 other contestants to the title.
The Nuba mountains in the state of South Kordofan have been subjected to a bloody counter-insurgency campaign since fighting broke out in June 2011.
Sudan’s government says it is engaged in aerial strikes against rebels seeking refuge in the mountain villages. Rights groups, however, say that the indiscriminate bombing is resulting in mass civilian death, with the number of recorded bombs dropped approaching 4,000.
Yaqoub said: “I’ve told our politicians and ministers that we want peace. Our mothers and sisters are being killed and raped. Yes, we are safe in [the capital] Khartoum but we suffer so long as our families back home suffer.”
Yaqoub was crowned beauty queen at the Nuba Cultural Heritage festival in 2014 and uses her fluency in Arabic, English and her Nuban mother tongue to lobby politicians. In December 2014 she delivered Nuba’s firstTEDx talk. Her reign was extended last year by the pageant panel, who felt she needed more time to spread her message.
A central part of her work, and the guiding idea behind the pageant itself, is to undermine president Omar al-Bashir’s ethnic and cultural rhetoric, seen at its most divisive in his ongoing “Arabisation” programme, which has seen non-Arab tribes alienated and disenfranchised.
As a result, the Nuba people have become increasingly excluded from what is considered a national Sudanese identity, with little representation in the government.
Since its inception, the shortlisted candidates for the Nuba Beauty Queen title must complete a gruelling selection process. Guidelines dictate that they must be cultured, multilingual and prepare a written thesis on their home region.
Most importantly, they must not make use of popular skin-whitening creams.
The condemnation of dark skin in Sudanese society and its association with an unwanted “African” appearance has driven a large majority of the country’s women to bleach their skin. In 2000, the dermatology section of the Khartoum hospital was pushed to open a “bio-clear” ward to treat the swathes of patients suffering from severe burns due to their use of whitening creams.
There is a heavy culture of racism here. The television spews these messages from morning to night – a constant reminder of our [Nuba] exclusion,” said Noha Mahdi, a 24-year-old beauty queen candidate competing to be Yaqoub’s successor.
“I am Sudanese, in my identity, my character and my appearance. It should not be my problem that my country has become Arabised. At the end of the day Sudan is an African country, the people that are from here – in all of their colours, shapes and sizes – are still Sudanese.”
Ahmed Elyass, a professor of history at the University of Khartoum, said Yaqoub’s position and visibility is crucial in a country that has a fundamental “misunderstanding about our culture, history and community”.
He added: “The Nuba played a huge role in ancient Sudanese kingdoms along the Nile, in Napata and Merowe, and anthropologists and archaeologists that studied skeletons and cultures from all over Sudan have found that culturally, biologically, genetically and linguistically we are all very similar.”