Balsam Hussein, a 26-year-old TV presenter and former hair-transplant specialist, has been crowned Miss Iraq 2022 at a beauty contest held in Erbil, capital of the northern Kurdish region.
Ms Hussein was among 19 contestants from across the country who were vying for the title and a chance to represent Iraq at the Miss World and Miss Universe events.
“I am highly motivated to participate in Miss World and Miss Universe pageants soon,” she said.
Ms Hussein's win raises her public profile even higher, after starting work in April as host of a morning TV show for a private channel in Baghdad.
Speaking to The National, she said she had been hesitant to take part in the competition but decided to go ahead at the last minute after full support from her family and close friends, as well as from her followers on social media.
“My family have been happy and proud of me throughout my life, but they became happier and prouder when they watched me on TV being crowned Miss Iraq 2022," she said. "I felt sorry that they were not able to come from Baghdad to Erbil as they were ill, but I never felt alone.”
Ms Hussein represented the Al Karakh district of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital where she was born and raised. She worked there as a hair-transplant specialist after training in Turkey before starting her TV job — something she said she had always dreamt of doing.
“I have a dream to improve the media and journalism field in Iraq, and of course, being a winner of Miss Iraq will help me to be closer to achieving that dream,” she said.
For Iraqis faced with uncertainty and instability as political groups squabble over forming a new government nearly 10 months after elections, the Miss Iraq pageant offered a window of hope for the future.
Ayman Hussein, 26, a resident of the southern province of Basra, said Ms Hussein's triumph was "a win for Iraq and Iraqis".
"It is a clear message that, in spite of political chaos, Iraq is able to hold such events," he said. "Whenever there is war, there is life — this is our interpretation of life."
Mr Hussein said he hoped to see Iraqi women take their rightful place in society. "Iraqi women experience hardship their entire life; it is the time to say 'I am here'."
Launched in 1947, the Miss Iraq contest was suspended for more than four decades in 1973 because of political upheaval and wars, and resumed only in 2015.
“From today, I represent all of Iraq," Ms Hussein said. "I would like to send a message to all Iraqi women: do not give up, fight to get your goals, be patient. You have faced wars and difficulties; do not make the harsh conditions a rock in your path — destroy it and keep going until all your dreams are met."
The judges declared Sarah Saad, from Baghdad's Al Rusafa district, as the first runner-up, and Jihan Majid, representing Wasit, as second runner-up. Hind Akram, representing the Baghdad Belt, was the third runner-up, followed by Sarah Khaled from Mosul.
Kareem Rasheed, executive director of the Miss Iraq organisation, said: “Iraq is thirsty for such events like Miss Iraq. Year after year, we will do our best to develop it and make it reach people around the Arab world.
“The contestants represent about 90 per cent of Iraq — we covered the regions of south, middle Euphrates, west and north.
“This year, we decided to rate beauty at 50 per cent and inner essence, such as culture, education and so on, also at 50 per cent, while in years past we were focusing on beauty over essence.
"All women are beautiful and each one has a unique trait that makes her different from others."