LINOR ABARGIL – The Queen Who Stood Up Against Sexual Violence
People always laugh at Miss Worlds because they want to save the planet and they wave very nicely. I really believe that the people who get power in the world should try to change the world. However funny and big that sounds, people should change the world even if it’s by changing one woman.” - Linor Abargil, Miss World 1998.
When we speak of queens, we usually conjure these mental pictures of beautiful and regal women with everlasting smiles who tour the world inspiring people to be more charitable, loving and peaceful. They are the symbols of elegance and class. I once chanced upon a caption of a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which says “The queen who reigns, the queen who rules”. Even in pageantry, we have queens who complete their reigns and go on, while others go above and beyond their titles and truly make use of their new status to make the world a better place.
I was having coffee with close friends this morning, an IT professional and a theatre director when we got to the subject of how rape scenes were handled by straight directors vs. gay directors. I expressed my opinion that rape scenes are not supposed to be depicted beautifully because rape is essentially an ugly, despicable act. It’s an act of humiliation, aggression and violence. I was already home and a nagging question still lingered within my head:
Has there ever been any beauty queen who worked beyond her official functions and campaigned against sexual violence?
Only one name resonated in my head: the beautiful and courageous Linor Abargil, Miss World 1998.
Nowadays, in between law studies, Linor is actively reaching out to women who were victims of sexual violence under her The Linor Documentary Project, which she formed 10 years after she was crowned Miss World. In collaboration with filmmaker Cecilia Peck she has also finished filming the documentary “Take Back the Night” which aims to, in her own words “increase awareness and create significant change in the perception of rape throughout the world.” Every time she talks to a woman who has undergone the same or worse ordeal as hers, she would always close her eyes, and the memories take her back to the outskirts of Milan where her horrific experience took place with a sexual attacker whom she knew and trusted.
Linor as she competes in Miss Israel
Enticed by the grand prize of a car and a trip to Thailand, 18-year old model Linor Abargil joined the 1998 Miss Israel contest on a whim. 9 months before the Miss World contest, while on a modeling job in Italy, she had her travel arrangements handled by Egyptian-born Israeli travel agent Uri Shlomo. She was supposed to go to Rome for another job but was informed by Shlomo that there were no more available flights to Rome. Shlomo offered to drive her to Rome and she accepted, but upon reaching the outskirts of Milan, she was tied, and raped twice at knifepoint. Fearing for her life, she used a quote she remembered from a movie “This is a one-night stand,” and pleaded to Shlomo not to kill her.
With a promise from her that she won’t tell anyone about the rape, she was dropped at the Milan Train Station where she called her mother about the incident. She then took a train to Rome where she reported the crime to the police before returning to Israel. Shlomo was apprehended but was released a few days later due to lack of evidence. Linor then reported the rape to the Israeli authorities who issued a warrant and proceeded to extradite Shlomo and make him face trial. To lure Shlomo out of the open, authorities advised Linor to keep quiet about the incident. To her it was a painful experience to keep silent about the crime, but worse is that the Miss World pageant is looming near and she has doubts is she should compete.
Upon her mother’s encouragement, she flew to Seychelles where she competed to at least forget about her experience for a while. With her pent-up anger, she couldn’t care enough about the contest, as she thought she was not the most beautiful but she felt the judges seemed to favor her because they thought there was something in her. The 1998 edition did away with the high heels and swimsuit parade before the judges. Instead the women paraded in different sets of clothes, from a casual look to smart party dresses and instead of talking about themselves, the delegates talked about friends and future careers.
L-R, Lina, Linor and Veronique
Despite heavy competition from exquisite beauties from around the world, Linor Abargil was crowned Miss World 1998, with the charming Veronique Caloc of France as 1st Runner-up and the classy Lina Teoh of Malaysia as 2nd runner-up. There were concerns that her military duties might interfere with her reign, but her father was optimistic that the army will permit Linor to continue with her duties as Miss World for a year. However, that moment made Linor understand her mission and that it had chosen her. Fearing that her victory might jeopardize the extradition proceedings against her rapist, she talked to the judges and told them they might have chosen the wrong girl, given her situation. They were very understanding, allowing her to just do some of the media interviews.
Linor's 1999 rape trial
The Italian press however, had a field day and the case of her rape was uncovered but apparently, Shlomo is not a fan of newspapers and was caught trying to enter Israel. 1999 was an unforgettable year for Linor as she had to recount her painful ordeal in front of the judge in the witness stand. Ultimately, on October 1999 Uri Shlomo was convicted to 16 years in prison. There were outbursts from Shlomo claiming that he was treated unfairly by Israeli law and that the Miss World Crown blinded them, but the verdict was upheld. Due to this conviction, cases of rape being reported in Israel increased by 80%.
After the conviction, Linor tried to speak as little of the incident as possible. To heal she studied drama and was cast in the Israeli production of The Blue Room. In 2006 she married Lithuanina basketball star and former Indiana Pacers point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius. After a year, the marriage fell apart and she returned to Israel with a mission: to study law and carry on with her advocacy against rape which she started in 2008. In 2010 she married her 2nd husband Oron Kalfon who was every bit as supportive as her mother in her cause.
This article is quite “personal” for me and I’d like to share to you that the horrors of rape are REAL and are still prevalent around the world. Here’s the current world statistics on it:
Rape is not a 3rd world problem only.
We can see clearly here that rape is a global disease that we need to eradicate. For victims of rape, Linor has this advice:
“The most important thing you can do as a rape survivor is to seek help, I encourage you to call your local rape crisis center, and other organizations that care for rape victims. Your identity will be anonymous there. You need to speak to someone, and even if you can’t turn to your family, at least call for professional help. It’s so important.”
Linor's support system gives her strength to continue and help other rape survivors.
The Linor Documentary Project is already inspiring many women to come forward and report their experiences of sexual violence. Before taking on the project Linor knew that it would mean she migt lose modeling jobs and stigma, but to her surprise, even on work –related travels she gets approached by women who were inspired by her cause. Linor attributes her family’s support especially her mother as key to the progress of her cause. Others were quick to put the blame on her, being a model and beauty queen, but she believes that she was lucky to have a mother who did not care about what their neighbors will say and believed that the fault was not hers but the rapist’s. She has also enriched her Jewish faith and is focusing on her law studies. In 2011 she got pregnant with her first child.
Truly a woman worthy of admiration.
To a lesser queen the crown meant a glamorous life and countless endorsement and modeling deals but to Linor, it meant justice for her and other victims of sexual violence. Linor is indeed a queen who rules.