Miss Afghanistan knew she was taking a risk when she strutted across a catwalk in Manila, Philippines, in a bright red bikini.
"I did understand," said Vida Samadzai, a 25-year-old California State University, Fullerton, student, "that it would probably not be acceptable in my society."
But she did not know she would be denounced by the government of her native land, criticized by her community and at the same time hailed by others as a role model for girls and women in the "new Afghanistan."
All because of a bikini. This week, Samadzai is back in Orange County, Calif., days after competing in the international Miss Earth pageant in Manila. She did not win. She didn't even make it to the semifinals. But she did inspire judges to bestow a special prize: a "beauty for a cause award" to Miss Afghanistan for "symbolizing the newfound confidence, courage and spirit of today's women."
Countries such as Afghanistan that are strongly influenced by Islamic standards of dress and behavior for women do not usually participate in international beauty pageants. The first and last time there was an official Miss Afghanistan was 1972 - and even then, the winner didn't wear a bathing suit on stage or compete internationally.
Enter Samadzai, who immigrated in 1996 to attend college in the United States. As she worked toward her degree - a double major in international business and communications - she got the idea of entering beauty contests to draw attention to causes that are important to her, such as the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the welfare of women and children in her native country.
Last year Samadzai, a U.S. citizen whose siblings and parents also now live in the United States, entered the Ms. America International competition and placed third.
This year she entered the Miss Earth contest, a pageant with an environmental theme that started two years ago. Under rules of the contest, countries such as Afghanistan that do not have regional pageants to select participants may be represented by natives who live abroad.
Nominated by Susan Jeske of Orange County, a former Ms. America, Samadzai says she had no idea that turmoil in the Middle East and concern about Islamic fundamentalism would make her appearance in a bathing suit fodder for the international media. "I did not know that it would cause this much stir," Samadzai said. "It was a shock."
In the past week, she has been interviewed by CNN, BBC, Time, Marie Claire magazine and numerous other international news outlets. The Afghan Embassy in Washington fielded so many calls it was forced to issue a statement that her appearance was not endorsed by the government. The Minister of Women's Affairs denounced Samadzai for participating in a "lascivious" entertainment for men.
A senior Afghan justice official even said she could face criminal charges if she returned to the country.
But after having some time to reflect, Samadzai said there was little she would do differently. She would still don the bikini wearing the Afghanistan sash - and she would still speak out on behalf of Afghan women. "If I offended some people, some women in Afghanistan, I apologize," she said. "I represent myself ... Afghan women should be allowed to do anything they want. Their rights shouldn't be suppressed. They should speak their mind. Be whatever they want to be."
People are captivated by her story, Samadzai thinks, because she exercised her freedom as an Afghan-American - a freedom she would not have had in Afghanistan, where until recently women were forced to cover themselves with burkas and could not even attend school.
"I have received so many positive e-mails, letters and cards. I don't even know from whom," Samadzai said.
Others in the Afghan-American community offer mixed messages of support and concern.
Even Zohra Daoud, the first and only official Miss Afghanistan, wonders if Samadzai was wise to flaunt her Western values on that runway in Manila before an international audience. "She's definitely a talented girl, very beautiful and very courageous," said Daoud, who now lives in Malibu, Calif. "She lives in a free society. She has the right to do whatever she wanted to do.
"But this doesn't help Afghan women at all," Daoud said. "This is an act of rebellion. She rebelled against authority. She rebelled against Afghan values."
Whether she sought the role or not, Samadzai now finds herself committed to representing the cause of liberated Afghan women. She has spent three months in Pakistan working at refugee camps. And she is working on a film about the struggle to balance Western culture with Islamic values.
"I am an Afghan-American," Samadzai said. "I live in America."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.