Harnaaz, the first Indian in 21 years to win the title was adorned with the Mouawad “Power of Unity” crown
Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu, Miss Universe 2021 Image Credit: Supplied

On Dec. 14 Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu was crowned the 70th Miss Universe at the 2021 pageant held in Eilat, Israel. A model and actor from Chandigarh, Harnaaz brought back the crown to India after 21 years. It so happens that she is 21 herself. 'Naaz' - means pride, glory, magnificence, splendour, and beauty in Persian, Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi. Harnaaz certainly made the whole country proud of her.

Previous to her, Lara Dutta was Miss Universe in 2000 and, before her, Sushmita Sen in 1994. Indian beauties have won the competing “Miss World” title more often, six times to be precise, starting way back with Reita Faria in 1966. Manushi Chhillar (2017), Priyanka Chopra (2000), Yukhta Mookhey (1999), Diana Hayden (1997), and Aishwarya Rai (1994), have also been crowned “Miss World.”

In addition, Dia Mirza became Miss Asia Pacific International in 2000 and Nicole Faria won the Miss Earth title in 2010. Of these beauty queens, Rai and Chopra have gone on to international celluloid superstardom, while Sen and some others have fared very well too.

The usual suspects

Today, some people are wont to belittle beauty pageants and their winners. They think that such competitions are sexist and demeaning to women, objectifying and trivialising them. Everyone knows that a human being’s worth cannot be reduced only to their physical attributes.

There is much more to all of us than meets the eye. No doubt, regardless of our looks, we have so much to contribute to the world. Nor should our self-worth depend entirely on our appearance.

Yet can we deny that beauty, which is a platonic attribute and divine quality, remains a cherished human value? Poise, grace, elegance, demeanour, and — above all — character are all valuable contributing factors to a well-developed and attractive personality.

All these qualities were amply evident in Harnaaz, especially the way she handed an awkward, some would say, demeaning question, suddenly sprung on her by the host and presenter of the show, Steve Harvey.

“I hear you do some pretty good animal impersonations,” he said, “Let’s hear your best one.” Harnaaz, taken off guard, really shone in her comeback. Showing both presence of mind and tremendous confidence, she returned, “Oh my God, Steve, I was not expecting to do this on the world stage.” Then, recovering, she continued, “I have to do this, I have no other option.” She took it in the right spirit, then proceeded, with perfect sangfroid, actually to make catcalls.

Dehumanising question

I saw the clip a couple of times. After the first miaow, Harnaaz really got into the act, her hands turned down to resemble cat paws, and belted out another couple. Rising in decibels, the last was even more convincing than the first. Harvey was rightly slammed for asking such an “uncouth” and “dehumanising” question. Perhaps, the script was presented to him without much choice. But it was certainly ungentlemanlike of him to proceed with it.

As to Harnaaz, she aced the final question round too. When asked, “What advice would you give to young women watching on how to deal with the pressures they face today?” she responded, “Well, I think the biggest pressure the youth of today is facing is to believe in themselves.

To know that you are unique and that’s what makes you beautiful. Stop comparing yourselves with others and let’s talk about more important things that are happening worldwide. I think this is what you need to understand. Come out, speak for yourself, because you are the leader of your life. You are the voice of your own. I believed in myself and that’s why I am standing here today.” This answer, for which she was applauded, pushed her past the finishing line, ahead of the other two contenders.

Controversies and beauty pageants go hand in hand. No surprise that this one was also marked by its share. Beside the embarrassing and unnecessary “animal animation” question I’ve already mentioned, the contestants were targeted for going to Israel for the finals.

Again, Harnaaz excelled in how she handled this issue. “We come here to unite and to share cultures,” she said, “This is not where we should talk about disparities. It’s something which talks about unity and inspiring each other.” The pageant was “about embracing everyone around the world, especially women,” she added, “I’m actually enjoying myself and my journey in Israel because it’s a beautiful country.” Many a seasoned diplomat might learn a lesson or two from her.

Harnaaz has a long way to go, many more milestones to cross, and much more to accomplish. The whole country wishes her well. What is more she already has a fan following across the world.

Another Indian origin high achiever who did us proud was Leena Nair, recently named CEO of one of the world’s most prestigious fashion brands, Chanel. Born and brought up in Kolhapur, what one would call “middle” India, she graduated from Walchand College of Engineering, Sangli with a bachelors in Electrical Engineering. She then topped her masters in management at XLRI — Xavier School of Management.

Starting as a Management Trainee at Hindustan Lever, she rose to be the Head of Human Resources at Unilever, taking her place in the Leadership Executive team of the multinational food and consumer goods behemoth. Earlier this year, she also made it to the Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women’s List. Now, she is the second Indian, after Indra Nooyi who was CEO of PepsiCo, to head an international corporation.

A real genius 

The third, of the many possible great Indian women whom I shall highlight, is someone from academia. 1984-born, Dr Neena Gupta, Professor at the Statistics and Mathematics at Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata, won the prestigious Ramanujan Prize for Young Mathematicians from Developing Countries for 2021.

An expert in commutative algebra and affine algebraic geometry, Gupta has also bagged the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award in 2019, one of the highest recognitions in Indian science.

Three women, in three distinct fields of human endeavour, have excelled themselves. Given India’s long tradition of producing the most outstanding and inspiring women leaders, we can be sure that many more will follow in their footsteps.