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A QUESTION OF PRIORITIES
- Nigeria has more important things on its mind than a beauty contest

The British writer, Muriel Gray, says that the contestants in today’s Miss World contest in London are “wearing swimwear dripping with blood”. According to another writer, the organizer has blood on her hands. British feminists have protested that the pageant degrades their sex. Nevertheless, I am glad that it is ultimately being held in a city where there is space and leisure, and the money that makes both possible, instead of in a continent where, according to the United Nations, a woman has to walk an average of six kilometres every day to collect water and a child dies every 15 seconds from some disease related to water, sanitation or hygiene.

Many Indian readers might disagree. First, we resent the suggestion of any qualitative difference between East and West. Second, with half a dozen titles ever since Reita Faria was crowned Miss World in 1966, we are old hands at the beauty game. India has become blasé. There is now even a Miss India Worldwide competition in which Non-Resident Indian beauties from 20 countries took part this year, and whose inauguration won predictable praise from George W. Bush. But an objective assessment demands that such contests should be held only in places where all basic urges have been satisfied. They must harmonize culturally with the setting and not offer scope for further conflict.

That was demonstrably not so in Nigeria where the 92 contestants flew in during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslim Nigerians — roughly half the country’s 120 million people — were fasting. Swimsuits were banned when Muslim clerics objected to what they called a flaunting of nudity. Then, a tour of the north, where Muslims are concentrated, had to be abandoned. Other signs were equally inauspicious. Not long ago, Nigeria’s unofficial Islamic courts had sentenced a young married woman with children, Safiyah Husaini, to death for adultery. The sentence was lifted only on appeal. But another young woman, Amina Lawal, remained condemned to be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock. It is a moot point how outsiders should respond to such situations.

Many of us find such laws and their execution abhorrent but do we have the right to criticize from a safe distance' And does such criticism serve any purpose' It might be asked, too, if a world that acquiesces in Saudi Arabia’s Islamic dispensation should not also accept Nigeria’s' Urged by feminist organizations, some Miss World candidates refused to go to Nigeria at all. Some promised to denounce Lawal’s treatment when they were asked to speak. Belgium’s courageous Ann Van Elsen tried to organize a boycott in Abuja and burst into tears when Miss Sweden and Miss Italy refused to join. “Every year, contestants say they are for world peace,” Van Elsen declared, “but I’m not sure if it has any effect. The chance that I can really say something during the pageant is really small. I think I will have a much more powerful effect if I boycott the contest.”

Beauty queens from France, Denmark, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Norway and Togo agreed with her. Korea’s Jang Yu Kyong and some others went a step further and decided to wash their hands of what they denounced as the hollow ideals of the pageant and go back home. Others argued that Lawal’s obliging plea that the contest should continue had taken the matter out of their hands. Nigeria’s Chinenye Ochuba said nothing at all. What of Miss India'

All hell broke loose when a 22-year-old Nigerian journalist, Isioma Daniel, wrote a silly article about the contest in ThisDay newspaper referring in a light tone to the Prophet Mohammed. So deeply were the faithful offended that some Muslim organizations issued a fatwa calling for her death. The call to protest went out to two million cell phone subscribers. More than 200 people were killed and 22 churches and eight mosques destroyed in the violence that broke out. The upsurge forced the cancellation of the contest and its shift to London.

All this has to be seen in context. Nigeria has a secular constitution and the 12 northern states that adopted sharia law two years ago are at odds not only with the remaining 19 but also with the federal authorities. More than 2,000 people were killed in rioting when the sharia law decision was taken in 2000.

Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, a jovial former army general who was legitimately elected, is himself a Christian southerner, but hopes for re-election in 2003 and cannot do without the north’s support. North and south (the latter accounting for the oil wealth that accounts for 90 per cent of Nigeria’s revenue) are in fact different worlds united only by British colonialism. Further, to complicate matters, Nigeria fought a vicious war between 1967 and 1970 to prevent the eastern region seceding as the breakaway republic of Biafra.

Even Muslim Nigeria may not be homogenous. An Islamic court set aside the sentence on Husaini. Lawal’s appeal is pending. And some Islamic leaders have opposed the fatwa against Daniel (a Christian like owner of ThisDay) on the grounds that only the Jama’atu organization and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, both headed by the titular Sultan of Sokoto, can pass such a sentence.

How much of this was explained to the contestants' We are assured that far from promoting dumb dolls, such contests bestow recognition on a desirable blend of physical beauty, personal charm, intelligence and awareness. As its website says, “Every aspect of the contest will underline the ideals promoted by Miss World, reflecting the attributes of today’s woman; a woman who has her own goals and views of her role within society.” But were they aware that Kaduna town, capital of Zamfara province which took the lead in adopting sharia law and where the rioting was at its most fierce, has a 70 per cent unemployment rate' Kaduna’s governor, Ahmed Mohammad Makarfi, says the outbreak had little to do with the Miss World contest.

That is also Obasanjo’s view. He says that the beauty queens “should not feel that they are the cause”. Instead, he blames “irresponsible journalism”, not Nigeria’s simmering social tensions and economic distress or the cruel gulf between local conditions and the glittering world of cosmetic beauty.

The Americans will probably suspect al Qaida and blame Saddam Hussein. Nigeria’s riots will be seized upon as additional reason to attack Iraq. But as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak reminded the United States of America earlier this week, terrorism feeds on injustice and inequality. It has been pointed out that the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel on the Kenya coast was an island of luxury in a sea of poverty and deprivation. Similarly, a pageant involving millions of dollars promoted by all the big names in the international world of high fashion could only mock conditions in strife-torn Nigeria.

This is not necessarily to decry beauty contests that appeal to a large number of people worldwide. But let Indian supporters not forget that the tribute is not to some classical ideal of Hindu beauty but to a burgeoning middle-class whose vanity is expected to enhance the revenues of the contest’s multinational sponsors. They are mainly companies in the beauty business. That is a legitimate enough vocation, but there is a time and place for everything. It’s a question of priorities.

Just because an attractive and accomplished young Nigerian girl, Agbani Darego, won the title last year does not mean that her entire country needs, or is ready, for the contest. As events showed, the world’s most deprived continent, stricken by famine, teeming with HIV and AIDS, torn by searing religious and tribal conflicts and sizzling with civil wars has more important things on its mind than an extravaganza of frivolous fantasy. This tragic fiasco will have served some purpose if the corporate gurus of globalization learn that lesson.

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