An Iraqi Miss Universe contestant whose family was forced to flee the Arab country after a photo of her with an Israeli candidate went viral has spoken of her ordeal to CNN, recounting “scary” death threats and anxious calls to her mother back home.
Sarah Idan said she “didn’t think for a second there would be blowback” when she posted a selfie to Instagram with Israeli Adar Gandelsman. Both Gandelsman and Idan published the joint selfie on their Instagram pages, expressing a desire to promote peace, while participating in the Miss Universe International Beauty Pageant in Las Vegas.
The 27-year-old Iraqi said she had been on “on cloud nine” at the pageant, where she was the first Iraqi contestant in 45 years. “I had been dreaming of that forever.”
When she and her Israeli counterpart became friendly at the contest, Idan recounted, “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.'”
But the response in Idan’s home country was swift and vicious.
“I woke up to calls from my family and the Miss Iraq Organization going insane. The death threats I got online were so scary.”
Her Iraqi sponsors demanded that she remove the photo from her account. “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.”
Idan refused to take down the photo, though she did write a second post stressing the photo was not a show of support for the government of Israel.
“I want to stress that the purpose of the picture was only to express hope and desire for peace between the two countries,” she wrote, going on to apologize “to all those who consider [the picture] harmful to the Palestinian cause.”
But that clarification didn’t do much good.
“People in Iraq recognized my family, they immediately knew who they were. And they were getting death threats,” Idan said. “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.”
The Miss Iraq Organization has denied threatening to strip Idan of her title, but acknowledged getting a strong response from Iraqis and asking her to “to clarify what happened.”
Idan said this was not true. “I have proof showing they threatened to take my title away if I didn’t remove the picture… They threatened to take my title many times.”
Idan also received threats for wearing a bikini during a pre-competition photo-shoot. But she said the selfie with Gandelsman caused her far more trouble.
“I’m here trying to paint a good picture about our country and our people, but instead I get a negative response. I have no support whatsoever from the Miss Iraq Organization and our government,” she said.
Idan, who has dual citizenship, is still in the US, and said she feared going back home. Her family has been forced to leave Iraq until the controversy subsides.
“I was crying to my mom and felt like it’s my fault they left, and she said, ‘no, it’s not your fault, we live in a f****d up society.'”
She added that “The government has been scary quiet. And when they’re this quiet, you don’t know what waits for you at home.”
Despite the trouble it has caused her and her family, Idan has said she has no regrets about posting the photo. She also remains optimistic about her people.
“A lot of people have the wrong idea about Iraq, and while we do have extremists, we also have good people,” she said. “Most of the good people go unnoticed.”
Dov Lieber contributed to this report.