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Why were Macau officials going through Miss Iran’s underwear?

As a globalised world grapples with the increasingly acute problem of the mass movement of people, the case of a particular individual’s movement across borders hogged the headlines in Asia last week. Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung was expelled from Thailand by the country’s military government, apparently at the behest of Beijing.

After that came news of a much less high-profile denial of entry, when two Hong Kong activists and an independent filmmaker were blocked from entering Macau on the grounds that they posed a security threat.

Both cases set off a heated debate on who can go where and who has the right to stop them.

But in the international intrigue and sheer strangeness stakes, neither can compete with a bizarre attempt by Macau border authorities to block an Iranian-born South African woman who landed in the world’s number one casino hub on a flight from the Philippines at the end of last month.

Enter (or rather don’t, in this case) the striking figure of Melika Razavi, who was shocked to find herself in what she described to This Week in Asia as an interrogation room, for the best part of three hours after touching down at Macau International Airport.

Razavi is quite possibly a one-off: a woman, a national of arguably the world’s most hardline Islamic state, a magician, a professional poker player and a beauty queen. Razavi, who is Miss Iran, usually has no trouble as she sashays through the international checkpoints that are part of life in the jet-setting world of professional card sharps, beauty pageants and the Magic Circle.

That was until last month, when – fresh from competing in the Miss Global 2016 beauty pageant in Manila, where she bagged the Miss Fitness title – Razavi handed her Iranian passport to a Macau immigration officer. She was then marched to a room in the airport and forced to endure, as she puts it, almost three hours of questioning and an embarrassing search, by male officers, of her most personal items of clothing.

Razavi, who lives in Cape Town and carries a South African identity card, explained she had come to Macau to play poker, something she’s done on previous occasions without problem, she told the Macau Daily Times newspaper, which first broke the story.

Perhaps Macau immigration officials were in a heightened state of suspicion ahead of the visit of Premier Li Keqiang, who arrives in the city on October 10 for a landmark international conference on China’s relationship with the Portuguese-speaking nations of the world.

Razavi was “shocked and astonished’’ to be blocked from entering the former Portuguese enclave because she was unable to show the equivalent of US$600 in cash.

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“I don’t carry cash when I am travelling as a result of previous negative experiences,’’ she said.

“I showed them several credit cards and asked if I could use them to withdraw cash from an ATM, but they refused. How crazy is that?

“I also told them my job was a professional poker player but this didn’t seem to help. They treated me like some sort of terrorist and told me they would be deporting me back to the Philippines, despite the fact that I showed them my confirmed reservation at a five-star hotel in Macau and my onward flight ticket to Cape Town.”

It was at that point she changed tack and explained to the officials that she was also a beauty queen, for good measure showing them a video of herself competing in the Miss Global 2016 pageant, and – in what was to be the clincher – clips of her bamboozling boxing legend Manny Pacquiao with her skills as a magician.

“When they saw the video clips of myself and Manny Pacquiao their attitude changed and the more senior officer said he was giving me a special ‘one chance’ to enter Macau, and they gave me a 10-day tourist visa despite the fact that on previous visits to the city my Iranian passport allowed me an automatic 60-day stay,’’ Razavi added.

In response the Macau authorities say they were simply performing “service formalities’’. It turns out Razavi’s treatment may not be an isolated case, according to Macau lawmaker Jose Pereira Coutinho, who says visitors from India, and a number of Indian nationals resident in Macau, have experienced similar “overzealous behaviour”, a complaint levelled at immigration authorities in Hong Kong in recent months.

“It’s ironic that people who are legitimately coming here to Macau to spend tourist dollars at a time when the city is trying desperately to reinvent itself as a mass-market gaming and general tourist destination are being treated in a way which certainly doesn’t look welcoming to the outside world,’’ said Coutinho.

Razavi’s story also raises the interesting issue of her colourful and seemingly incongruous set of skills. A female national of the Islamic state whose profession is high-stakes gambling, is a practitioner of magic and at the same time struts her stuff as a beauty queen.

Both gambling and beauty contests were outlawed in Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution as they ran contrary to the teachings of the Koran. Since then, due to the growth of communication and social networks, some Iranian women have entered global competitions around the world while living overseas.

Gambling, on the other hand, is much more widely practised by Iranians despite being illegal in their home nation.

Indeed, according to cardschat.com, Iranian-born US citizen Antonio Esfandiari is number two on the 2016 list of the world’s richest professional poker players. One of the most popular players on the live tournament scene, Esfandiari has racked up winnings of US$26,206,704 and won poker’s biggest ever prize, of more than U$18m.

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And Razavi’s encounter coincides with calls for a boycott of next year’s Women’s World Chess Championship in Tehran, in protest at Iran’s strict hijab laws.

At stake are two of the most current and contentious issues in Iran: equal participation for women in sport; and increasing resistance among growing numbers of Iranian women to their country’s compulsory Islamic dress code.

The controversy began after Iran was named as host country for the championship at the end of September, prompting dismay from some international players, including the current US champion, Nazi Paikidze. Georgian-born Paikidze said she was taking a stand over the requirement for all women living in Iran or visiting the country to wear a headscarf.

Chess was banned in Iran for much of the decade that followed the revolution, largely because of its pre-revolutionary association with gambling.