NEW DELHI, India - Organizers of a leading Indian beauty pageant came under fire on Thursday for selecting only fair-skinned women, with human rights campaigners saying the contest highlighted the nation's failure to respect women from all walks of life.
The Times of India newspaper, which belongs to the group that organizes the annual Femina Miss India contest, this week published a collage of 30 women, each representing an Indian state - and each fair skinned.
Anti-colorism activist Muna Beatty described Femina Miss India's selection as a "copy-paste job," with all contestants looking similar with long, dark hair and fair skin in line with India's long-running obsession over lighter skin tones.
But she warned such fair-skin bias could impact the mental health and self-esteem of darker-toned women and girls in India, where the contentious issue of the treatment of women has become a nationwide debate reflected at this year's general election.
"You have youngsters, kids watching this and thinking to themselves 'if I don't fit these criteria or this skin tone, then I'm not beautiful' and ... 'I'm not good enough'," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Bangalore.
People on social media complained that the contestants did not represent the diversity and potential of Indian women, including southern states where most people are darker-skinned.
Neither the Times Group nor Femina Miss India replied to the Thomson Reuters Foundation's repeated requests for comment.
Femina Miss India, or Miss India, annually selects contestants to compete in Miss World, 1 of the 4 major international beauty pageants alongside Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International.
Criticism of the annual beauty contest, which kick-started Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra's career, comes at a time when the treatment of women in the country of 1.3 billion people faces increasing scrutiny.
India ranks 108 out of 149 countries in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report, faring particularly badly on economic opportunities, while violence against women has dominated headlines.
India has seen a decline in female participation in the workforce in the past decade with World Bank figures showing women made up about 22 percent of the workforce in 2018 compared to nearly 27 percent in 2005.
The dwindling labor participation rate was feared to have far-reaching implications for India's economic development and the progress of women's rights in the often deeply conservative country.
Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of India's Dark Is Beautiful campaign, said she was not surprised with the pageant selection in a country where a woman is often judged by her appearance and complexion, calling it a "deep-rooted toxic" problem.
"You're basically saying you need to look a certain way to be valued in life," Emmanuel said.
"We need more platforms that showcase... women as people who are capable, women with a lot of potential, women who can achieve a lot rather than women who look good in this prescribed sort of format."