"A woman should always be beautiful," says Natalya Khapova, 26 (pictured at left). "Not just outside the fence. Even if she's in here, she should show her beauty. A woman is everything gentle and wonderful - or she should be." The "fence" Khapova speaks of? The one separating her from the population at large. See, Khapova has six-and-a-half years left of her eight-year sentence for assault. She lives in an all-women's prison. In Siberia. Since 1990, the jail has an annual beauty pageant with its own rules and three categories: Greek Goddesses, Flower Gowns and "Imaginary Uniforms," which lets inmates design their ideal prison getups. Guards and unit chiefs judge the contestants on their appearance and creativity, crowning the winner "Miss Spring." Runners-up are "Miss Charm" and "Miss Grace". Russia has 35 women's prisons and the female incarceration rate is almost five times as high as Britain's. Half of the women at UF 91/9 are doing time for narcotics. Does that mean it's OK for them to play dress-up?
When the pageant first started, over fifteen years ago, the inmates had no supplies. The winner made her dress out of plastic bags from the prison kitchen. Now the women are allowed to use hairspray, lipstick, nail polish — stuff not usually allowed in the prison. The pageant is the subject of a BBC Two special program which airs tonight. There's something poignant about incarcerated women getting to feel special — even if just for one day. But these women are criminals. And does the pageant emphasize the sexist idea that a woman is only valuable if she is pretty? Or is it worth it to have a much-needed bright spot in a drab, imprisoned Siberian existence?