Miss World Contest
is no Longer a Harmless Fun
by Ros Coward
What an irony that fundamentalist Muslims managed to do what feminism
ultimately failed to do: make Miss World a global political issue. As
contestants flee to London, and Nigeria counts its dead, it is almost
impossible to retain the idea that an annual parade of female flesh
is just an innocent quest for universal beauty acceptable to all reasonable
The death toll rose to 175
in Nigerian riots sparked by controversy over the Miss World pageant,
whose contestants flew to Britain on Sunday after organizers hastily
moved the event.
Feminists protested in the 1970s against Miss World as a degrading cattle
market where men were invited to judge women on their looks. They argued
that this parade of bodies was politics, not entertainment, because
it was really about power not aesthetics. Women displayed themselves
while men scrutinized, a process that reflected inequalities in society.
Feminist protests grabbed
headlines and forced the contest to haul itself into the modern world.
Suddenly there were women judges and the "girls" all had degrees
in astrophysics. But this didn't stop Miss World's slide. In the west,
the contest became as naff as bingo. It was feminism that represented
But far from fading away,
Miss World found a new niche as virtually the only global event regularly
staged in the developing world. The contest adopted the Eurovision song
contest format where the previous year's winner would host it. Officials
promote the idea of "the world family" and describe the contest
as "all the world on one stage". This, they claim, is not
a degrading beauty contest so much as a global competition uniting the
world in its love of a beautiful woman.
This "United Colors
of Benetton" approach certainly proved a rich vein to tap and not
just for the organizers. As Daniel Miller and Don Slater show in their
book on Trinidad, the contest was an opportunity for Trinidadians to
present themselves to the world, a defining moment of cultural identity
and modernity. Indians, who provided an early developing-world winner,
have remained attached. Conveniently, there has been a string of winners
from countries that were supposed to be - and often were - grateful
for the honor of having produced the world's most beautiful women in
the eyes of a western contest.
The triumph of Nigeria ought
to have been the crowning moment. Last year's winner, Miss Nigeria herself
pointed out that she is "the first black African woman to win",
because, for all its multiculturalism, the winners from black countries
remained resolutely pale. But Nigeria has turned out to be its nadir,
from the outset beset by controversy.
How was this circus of womanhood
going to respond to an issue of global political concern for women:
the sentencing of Amina Lawal to death by stoning for adultery? Even
a bunch of brainless bimbos would have found this a problem, but our
post-feminist intellectual beauty queens couldn't avoid it.
So, for the first time in
Miss World's history, ironically when there was no longer any pressure
on contestants to think about their collective identity as women, some
of them have done just that. Contestants from Norway, Denmark, Costa
Rica and South Africa withdrew, using the contest as a political platform
to force the world to notice this human rights outrage. Those who remained
convinced themselves they could do more by drawing the world's attention
to what was happening in Nigeria. This they certainly have done but,
with the obscene sight of corpses on the street, in a way no one could
The riots in Nigeria were
ultimately triggered, not by the contest itself but by a piece in a
local paper claiming the prophet himself might have chosen a wife from
these beauties. The Nigeria debacle shows how naive people are about
this divide between cultures, especially in a post-September 11 world.
A culture where a woman can be stoned to death for adultery clearly
contains elements that will not be entranced by a parade of female flesh
or the "modernity" it promises. To hold the contest during
Ramadan compounds the insult.
This is the same cultural
naivety exposed by the bombing of the Sari club in Bali. The consolation
some clubbers exchanged after the outrage betrays this same sense that
the world is a playground where the true human (western) values can
be paraded. Because no harm is meant, no offence should be taken. One
clubber mourned the passing of the club on a website, saying "it
was the United Nations of decadence" without any sense that this
is what made it a target.
This new era of Muslim fundamentalism
has changed the world but few in the west seem to realize this. Before
September 11, casual imperialism caused offence when the west paraded
its interests and values as self-evidently desirable. Now the reluctance
to attack representatives of western values has disappeared even among
those with no involvement in extremist organizations. Those rioting
on the streets of Kaduna were not members of al-Qaida but they had no
hesitation in attacking what they see as western values.
In such a world we should
think carefully about what values we want to parade. Democracy, equality
and tolerance certainly. But a beauty contest?
on Monday, November 25, 2002 by the Guardian/UK