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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 people.

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 modernity.

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 have wanted.

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?


Published on Monday, November 25, 2002 by the Guardian/UK