BAGHDAD • Saturday's pageant was smoky and alcohol-free, and there was no swimsuit contest, but it produced the first Miss Iraq in four decades, and everyone felt a small victory had been won.
"Some people out there think we don't love life," said organiser Humam al-Obeidi, as the crowd spilled out of the Baghdad hotel ballroom where the pageant was held.
The jury chose Ms Shaymaa Abdelrahman, a tall, green-eyed 20-year-old from Iraq's multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk.
"I'm very happy to see Iraq going forward," she said as she tried to fend off admirers hoping to clinch a selfie. "This event was huge and put a smile on the faces of Iraqis."
There was more talking than glamorous strutting during the pageant as the contestants - in high heels and evening dresses that were sleeveless but fell below the knee - pitched their charity projects to the jury.
Ms Abdelrahman said she would forward educational initiatives, especially for displaced communities.
The event was designed to meet enough international criteria to propel the winner to the next Miss Universe contest, but some details, such as the Kalashnikov-toting guard at the door, set the event firmly in Iraq.
Racked by an ongoing war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the country is plagued by deep sectarian tensions and corruption. But the pageant left participants, organisers and guests feeling that beating the gloom was part of the war effort.
"I think it is wonderful. It makes you feel things can come back to normal," said veteran human rights activist Hana Edwar.
Contestant Suzan Amer, 22, said that a beauty pageant was more than a distraction in Iraq.
"It's my first time doing anything like this, but it's an experience I wanted to be part of. I think Iraq needs events like these," she said.
The last time the Miss Iraq competition was held was in 1972, when the oil-rich country was on an upward track.