With dreadlocks down to below her buttocks, the first Rastafarian to compete for the Miss Universe title is out to smash the stereotype that Rastas are only interested in reggae and marijuana.
Zahra Redwood, 25 and the first Miss Jamaica to be crowned from the country's minority Rastafarian faith, is also shaking up a years-old view among many Rastas that beauty pageants should be shunned as degrading to women.
"Not all Rastafarians smoke" marijuana, Redwood, a classically beautiful Jamaican with a degree in biotechnology and zoology, told Reuters.
"People criticise what they don't know or understand and develop preconceptions, and so given that, I have gone against what they've developed as a stereotype," said Redwood, who is in Mexico for the Miss Universe final on May 28 in Mexico City.
Rastafarians - who worship the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as a God they call "Jah" - stress peace, love, spiritual goals and natural living, Redwood said, denying a clash between Rasta culture and being a beauty queen.
"The Rastafarian culture and beauty pageants have a great deal in common because they both promote decorum in the attitude of the female and the female as a role model in society. You're looking at beauty of the mind, body and soul," she said.
Rather than discrimination, the main reason for a dearth of Rasta beauty queens on the international circuit is the movement's rejection of the more corrupt or gaudy facets of modern society, which they call Babylon, Redwood said.
Made famous around the world by Bob Marley's reggae songs, the Rasta culture emphasises human dignity and self-respect.
"Rastafarians have been a very conservative group so modelling and pageants have been considered Babylonian to some extent," Redwood said.
But the reaction from fellow Rastafarians to her competing to be Miss Universe against women from some 75 other countries has been overwhelmingly positive, partly because black women with dreadlocks are so rarely seen in beauty contests, she said.
"They've been very, very happy for what they consider a psychological breakthrough. For them it's a huge thing," Redwood said.
The Rastafari movement was born in Jamaica in the 1930s after Selassie's coronation in Ethiopia. Followers started to worship Selassie, who died in 1975, as a type of messiah, in light of a 1920 prophecy by Jamaican civil rights leader Marcus Garvey that a black man would be crowned king in Africa.
Roughly a 10th of Jamaicans are Rastafarians, many of whom also take literally a biblical verse in the book of Leviticus that instructs against taking a razor to one's head.
In the Miss Universe 2007 line-ups, Redwood's twisty black dreadlocks, often massed into a huge bun, stand out from the lacquered manes of the other contestants.
"For the final I'm still not sure what style I will go with. But of course the locks have to show," she said.
Smoking marijuana, known in Jamaica as ganja, is a sacred rite for many Rastas, but Redwood said she does not smoke it.
Labels: Zahra Redwood