Coming from a small country has never been an impediment to achievement, as Bahrain's Wafa Janahi can attest. The 23-year-old law student challenged the image of Arab women at home and abroad when she became the first woman from the GCC to be crowned Miss Arab World 2007.
But unlike in other contests for single, young women where a gleaming smile, charm and elegance are major criteria, Wafa's win is attributed to her confidence and intelligence. This Miss captured the hearts of millions — with her warmth and down-to-earth personality.
Wearing a traditional red gown adorned with heavy gold embroidery, a crown and a sash, and carrying a Bahraini flag around her neck, Wafa arrived back home from the contest with hopes to represent Bahraini women in the region and worldwide.
Her manager, Fathi Al Alawi, knew from the beginning that the crown was reserved for Wafa. "She is ideal in many ways, especially in her charming and friendly behaviour," he said. The title meant the world to Wafa, who loves to gain new experiences in life, he added.
Wafa beat 19 other candidates to win the title and become the first Bahraini to participate in and win the event. Candidates in the contest, held in Egypt, came from 16 Arab countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, Libya and Palestine.
In her soft voice, the 23-year-old law-degree holder told tabloid! that the title has created new opportunities and challenges for her. "It is not easy to be Miss Arab, but I'm looking forward to making Bahrainis and Arabs proud of me."
"I participated in the contest because of its unique approach, as it didn't focus on physical beauty, but on the mind and intelligence of Arab girls," she said. "Even if I hadn't won, the experience would have been enough."
Wafa pledged to get involved in social activities and defend the rights of Bahraini women. "I don't know what is in store for me. By following in the footsteps of great individuals, I will try to be brave and see the positive side of everything, even conflict.
"Not neglecting my career and education whilst fulfilling the title's missions is one of the main conditions of the contest. That's why I will start my higher education soon," Wafa said. She plans to begin a Ph.D shortly.
She didn't face problems convincing her parents to let her enter the competition, since they too were certain of her winning potential from the start. "My parents taught me and my brothers and sisters to be confident and pursue our dreams, which is why they welcomed my participation in the contest."
But it wasn't easy all the way. Wafa nearly stepped down from the contest after receiving criticism in a local newspaper, which highlighted the shallow nature of "Miss" competitions. "I was deeply hurt and decided to walk out, but my fans overwhelmed me with their support. Because of them, I reconsidered my decision."
Wafa maintains that the contest wasn't a beauty pageant, saying the event challenges the skills and personalities of Arab women. "No way would I participate in a beauty pageant that only looks at the physical attractions of the contestants. That is a demeaning to me and to women's achievements."
She said that the contest was unique in that it accepted veiled contestants like her. "I'm a covered girl, and that was never an obstacle to leading a happy and fulfilling life."
Besides Wafa, contestants from Morocco and Kuwait were also wearing headscarves.
But it was a contest after all, and competing against girls from around the region was no small feat. The road to the title wasn't easy for Wafa. She, along with the other contestants, joined a two-week camp to polish their skills and prepare them for the big day. "I found it difficult in the beginning to fit in with the other girls, but soon we developed strong bonds."
Fighting for rights
Wafa plans to strengthen her involvement in charity work, hoping to reinforce the position of Arab women regionally and internationally. "I will visit an orphanage and organise charitable projects, especially during Ramadan.
"As a lawyer I will strive to fight for the rights of women to remove all discrimination against them," she promised.
Involvement in a worldwide tour to present Arab girls in similar contests has been offered to Wafa, but nothing has materialised yet. But plans to hold the next Miss Arab contest in Bahrain are being considered.
So what message has Wafa come away with after her Miss Arab experience? "I urge all girls to not hesitate in facing the outside world, and experience new things in life," she said.