Earlier this year, when the opportunity to represent Palestine at the Miss Europe Continental beauty pageant was presented to Nadeen Ayoub, the model and fitness trainer from Ramallah jumped at the chance.
Ayoub, 24, who had only recently finished university in Ontario, Canada, had no prior pageantry experience but says she felt compelled to participate.
"Palestine hardly ever gets represented in global competitions ... or anything for that matter," she tells The National. "So I thought I'd do it for my country.
"Also, I thought it would be a nice vacation in Italy, which is where the competition was," she adds, laughing.
Ayoub admits she wasn't really taking the competition seriously. But when she placed in the top five among the 53 countries being represented, something changed in her.
"I realised how close I came to winning and thought if I prepared myself, I could really make a big impact," she recalls.
Ayoub, who was named Miss Palestine 2022 soon after, made history last month by placing in the final four of the Miss Earth global pageant — the first time someone from Palestine has ranked so high in a major beauty competition.
The environment-focused Miss Earth is one of the Big Four annual beauty contests, along with Miss World, Miss Universe and Miss International, and has been held mostly in the Philippines since it was launched in 2001. While the 2022 title was won by Mina Sue Choi of South Korea, the contest places "elemental" titles on the rest of the finalists — Miss Fire, Miss Water and Miss Air.
Ayoub was crowned Miss Earth-Water while Andrea Aguilera of Colombia was crowned Miss Earth-Fire and Sheridan Mortlock from Australia was named Miss Earth-Air.
Ayoub, a fan favourite during the preliminary rounds, says she gave the competition her all this time around.
"For me, it was an opportunity to be a voice for the Palestinian people, and be up there and speak about us on a global stage," she says. "I was not just there as a beauty queen, but I was representing my country, its culture, designers and artists — everyone who helped me along the way to represent my country."
But it was when she made it to the final 12 early on in the competition that Ayoub says she really felt she could actually win big.
"I've always had a stubborn confidence, so I was just enjoying the process. But when my name was called for the final 12, I was like 'Whoa! This is getting real'. That's when I really got into competition mode," she recalls.
She also relished the decisive final question posed to the final four: "What is one thing you want to right in this world and how would you right it?"
"I would want to fight the ignorance and selfishness of people," Ayoub said, drawing loud cheers from the audience. "Because I think that is the main problem that we are facing today, with all of the issues including environmental catastrophes, which are made by humans.
"It starts with education," she added. "That's how we can solve the selfishness and ignorance that we see today, and save planet Earth."
Ayoub says the question meant a lot to her, because it gave her the opportunity to speak as a Palestinian to the world, even beyond the pageant's environmental theme.
"It was a chance for me to really speak my heart, to say things as I saw it," she says. "By then, I didn't just see it as a competition where I'm up there trying to win, I saw it as a chance to use my voice as a Palestinian would, an opportunity we rarely get."
Still in Manila following the Miss Earth pageant, Ayoub, who splits her time between Canada and Palestine, will soon head back to Ramallah, where she hopes to continue her environmental work across the Middle East.
She will also continue to work with the Miss Palestine Organisation and help inspire the next generation of beauty queens to become global ambassadors for her country.
"I want to continue spreading awareness about the beauty of Palestine and give artists and fashion designers and talented people in Palestine a platform and a voice," she says.
"I hope that I have paved the way for other women in Palestine and the Arab world to be represented in a global competition. Because these platforms are not just about beauty, they are important platforms where you can really add your voice to issues and be an advocate for important causes."
Scroll through the gallery for more pictures from the Miss Earth 2022 competition