Nearly a month ago, Sarah Idan was in a hand-beaded Swarovski crystal gown representing Iraq in the Miss Universe pageant. It was the first time in 45 years that Iraq had a contestant in the pageant.
“I was on cloud nine, I had been dreaming of that forever,” said Idan, 27, an aspiring singer/songwriter.
But all of that suddenly changed. And it was all over a selfie.A selfie seen around the world.
Idan and Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman, took the picture during a pre-pageant photo shoot in Las Vegas.
“I said ‘let’s take a picture so our people can see we don’t have a problem and we’re actually ambassadors for peace.'”
In the caption, she wrote “Peace and Love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.”
The reaction wasn’t what she expected.
Six days before the pageant, she woke up to threats from the Miss Iraq organization, warning her to take down the photo or she’d be stripped of the title.
Others threatened her life.
She immediately called her family who was living in Iraq.
“My mom was freaking out. I told her ‘Mom, just get out. Get out.’ I told her I’m sorry and asked if she wants me to leave the competition. I was ready to drop out right then.”
Idan says she was also being threatened online because she wore a bikini during one of the preliminary competitions.
But it was the selfie with Miss Israel that had the most serious repercussions. Iraq and Israel don’t have any formal diplomatic relations, so the picture was causing an international outcry.
“When I posted the picture I didn’t think for a second there would be blowback,” Idan says. “I woke up to calls from my family and the Miss Iraq Organization going insane. The death threats I got online were so scary.”
Idan refused to take the photo down.
“The director of the Miss Iraq Organization called me and said they’re getting heat from the ministry. He said I have to take the picture down or they will strip me of my title.”
Dealing with the fallout
A day after she posted the selfie, Idan agreed to put up a second post explaining that she doesn’t support the Israeli government or its policies in the Middle East, and apologized for “anyone who thinks it’s an attack for the Palestinian cause.”
Idan didn’t talk to the media about the controversy so her parents and other family members could quietly leave Iraq.
“People in Iraq recognized my family, they immediately knew who they were. And they were getting death threats.”
Idan, who has dual US and Iraqi citizenship, was trying to get her national ID renewed during the pageant. She needed the ID to get her Iraqi passport renewed.
Before her family fled the country, she said her mother was told at the passport office in Baghdad that Idan would have to reapply for the national ID.
That would require Idan to travel back to Iraq, which she says she’s afraid to do.