Miss World war

What turned the catwalk into a battle zone?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Is it Miss World we’re watching, or Carry On 2002? The abortive attempts to hold the world’s annual beauty contest in conflict-stricken Nigeria has resulted in bloodshed and tragedy, but that doesn’t make the discussion about it any less farcical.

The plot, as I understand it, goes like this. Miss Nigeria’s victory in last year’s contest meant that Nigeria got to host the competition. Great for Miss Nigeria – not so great for some other Misses from Africa and Scandinavia, who announced their intentions to boycott the contest in protest at Nigerian human rights abuses (in particular, the decision by an Islamic court to sentence Amina Lawal, a mother, to death by stoning for committing adultery).

Then, a Nigerian journalist writes an article speculating that Prophet Mohammed would have wanted to marry one of the Miss World contestants. All hell breaks loose. Riots on the streets kill over 200 people; the newspaper office is burnt down; terrified Miss World contestants are holed up in their hotels before seeking asylum in London; a fatwa is issued against the journalist in question.

As the beauty queens cower under the spotlight, their plainer sisters in the UK media, engaged in the more frivolous business of column-writing, feel compelled to stick their oar in. Everything from patriarchy to Western consumer culture to the clothing industry to religion gets thrown into the pot in an attempt to work out what turned this catwalk into a battle zone. So, at the risk of being accused of following fashion, here’s my view.

The chief organisers of the Miss World competition have been roundly castigated for denying that the pageant caused these riots, and stating that they would have no objection to holding the contest in Nigeria in the future.

‘It is not permissible, unfortunately – even on late-night radio – to call an interviewee a moron’, fulminated Guardian columnist Rod Liddle, commentating on a Radio 5 interview he conducted with Miss World organiser Stella Din (1). ‘But the impression remains that she was being either very stupid or very disingenuous.’ Labour MP Glenda Jackson has made similar criticisms: ‘The best thing to do after such fratricide and bloodletting is to cancel the whole competition.’ (2)

But do these people really think that Nigerian politics is driven by a beauty show? That’s like saying that the Bali bomb was caused by a nightclub. Nigeria is an unstable country racked by poverty and conflict, and wrought with ethnic tension – it doesn’t take much to ignite a new battle. Miss World arriving in Ramadan may have triggered something, but that’s very different to saying that the contest caused this whole mess.

Why, then, the desire to attribute all manner of ills to Miss World? Perhaps because it gives columnists another opportunity to address their favourite moral dilemma. Which makes us more uncomfortable – Islamic fundamentalism, or the culture of the West?

When it comes to human rights abusers that we love to hate, Nigeria ranks up there with Burma, China and Afghanistan-under-the-Taliban. Amina Lawal’s stoning sentence was greeted with howls of outrage from British liberals, as well it might have been. To see such backward, barbaric punishments proposed in 2002, in relation to acts that, in the West, are seen less as crimes than as part of normal married life, is an affront to the principles of a civilised, equal, largely secular society.

However unsure Westerners feel about the moral standing of their society, somewhere like Nigeria can always be dragged out to show that, at least when it comes to adultery and stoning, ‘we’ are better than ‘them’.

This works if the ‘we’ in the equation is represented by international law, or by world conventions on the Rights of Women populated by non-governmental organisations handing out condoms. It works less well if our ambassadors are pretty girls taking part in an infra-dig talent show. And so, bizarrely, the same sentiment that was all ready to perform a ritual chastisement of Nigeria in relation to Amina Lawal’s stoning now calls for the same chastisement of the West for its cultural insensitivity in imposing Miss World.

‘Is there no end to the wilful, decadent tactlessness of the West?’ asks Libby Purves, writing in The Times (London) about the Miss World debacle (3). Rod Liddle, in the Guardian, claims that ‘[f]or the predominantly Muslim population of northern Nigeria, the whole thing was, clearly, an affront’ (4).

Liddle continues: ‘It would have appeared, to the imams and the fervently faithful, as a quintessential example of everything that is rancid and grotesque about the hated, godless Western culture. And although we might draw the line at killing people over it all, it is hard, from a theoretical point of view, to disagree with them about this.’ (5)

Both these articles were published on the same day, have almost the same title (plays on ‘Miss World’ and ‘ugliness’), and make pretty much the same point: that the dark underbelly of the Nigerian riots lies not in Nigeria, but in the Western-created Miss World. Here we have a competition that is at best dated and naff, and at worst a symbol of women’s objectification, subordination and oppression. Like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestle and Nike, Miss World is held up as an example of Western products of dubious moral worth that ‘we’ impose on ‘them’, without considering the possibility of cultural backlash and street riots.

Of course, it is true that Miss World is not Shakespeare, and it is hard to see how the Nigerian people will benefit culturally by their participation in this circus. But these criticisms of Miss World reflect a deeper insecurity. The sentiment behind them seems to be that there are no aspects of Western culture (with the exception of anti-stoning laws) that can even be considered of enough universal importance to export them elsewhere. Commentators of our self-despising times look at Western culture and all they see is Miss World, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestle and Nike – and they can’t even appreciate those.

So obsessed are we becoming with the shortcomings of what we have made of consumer society that we forget about the massive industrial, technological, scientific and cultural advances that freed us up to be obsessed with sex and shopping. Two hundred years of history is presented as being as inconsequential as 50 years of Miss World – and beneath the discussion about protecting Nigeria from beauty pageants lies the prejudice that such countries should be protected from modernising influences, even those as naff as this.

Of course, in the row about whether Nigeria should host Miss World, nobody seems to have thought to ask the Nigerian government. As with all issues of global significance, it is assumed that decisions about what is best for Nigeria should be taken in the political institutions and editing suites of Europe and the USA. In the UK media’s Miss World contest, Nigeria is presented as the airhead, journalists emerge as the judges, and nobody is looking very good.

(1) The ugly side of Miss World, Guardian, 26 November 2002

(2) Miss World shakes off the controversy and lands with a message: the pageant must go on, Independent, 26 November 2002

(3) Third World reveals Miss World ugliness, The Times (London), 26 November 2002

(4) The ugly side of Miss World, Guardian, 26 November 2002

(5) The ugly side of Miss World, Guardian, 26 November 2002

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Topics Politics


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