Margaret Eby
Updated Sep 08, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

When Carolyn Desert was crowned Miss Haiti on Sunday, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. Desert deserved it. The pageant queen managed to turn a beauty contest into a pro-women platform.

“I am a woman who is running after her dreams,” Desert, a businesswoman who opened her first restaurant at age 24, told a moderator during her on-stage interview. She also took the opportunity to champion the women of Haiti, calling out the fact that they’re “more than just looks,” as the Associated Press put it. Rather, she said, “[they have] perseverance, courage, [and] resilience.”

The audience reportedly erupted in applause—some of those cheering were teenage girls rescued from human trafficking. Clearly, Desert’s comments had an impact that went beyond the judge’s table.

In Haiti, the fragile state of women’s rights, and the lack of equality in positions of power, have become serious enough issues to prompt a call for change, both in legislature and in social perceptions. In 2010, Haiti was ranked as one of the lowest in terms of women’s participation in politics and decision-making. Meanwhile, the rise in sex crimes and violence against women since the 2010 earthquake, have raised new concerns about the safety and freedoms afforded to women. As feminist advocacy groups within the country are rising up to fight for equality, Desert’s statements about the perception of women struck a chord.

The Inquistor quickly referred to Desert as a “feminist dream.” Meanwhile on Twitter, she was hailed as a “great role model” and, according to Haiti’s YWCA, a women who will “stand with women and girls.”

Even in the context of aesthetics, Desert was praised for bypassing beauty pageant norms and wearing her hair short, unlike almost all of her long-haired fellow contestants. And she made it clear that her life’s work was not about beauty, but doing real work.

“I’m going to support the youth,” Desert said in her acceptance speech. “I’m going to support women. I’m going to support the poor.”

Desert now moves on to the Miss World competition in London, and will work as the face of the Haiti Tourism Ministry as well. Hopefully, she’ll serve as a powerful voice alongside those fighting for class and gender equality in Haiti. Certainly, her win is a sign that empowered women are being embraced in pop culture—and in beauty pageants.