Indian university students burn Miss
World effigies during demonstrations leading up to the 1996
contest. Protests against India's staging the Miss World
competition span the political spectrum, from Indian farmers
to women's groups, from right-wing Hindus to Communist party
members. Protest rallies are thrown in Bangalore to New Delhi, drawing thousands. (AP/Wide World Photos)
The pageant was confronted in the 1990s by a new kind of resistance,
rooted this time in growing anxiety about a changing world.
Unlike earlier protests, which had been centered largely on
sexism, opposition to the competition now played out against
the backdrop of rising concern over the global dominance of
multinational corporations and the widening gap between rich
In the 1990s, the Miss World competition looked for stages
across the globe. South Africa had been banned from the competition
for 13 years, but a postapartheid government hosted four competitions
in this decade. These contests were held at the lavish Sun City
casino resort and African theme park, which is groomed with
man-made rain forests and carved out of the bush adjacent to
the impoverished township of Ledig.
As the Miss World pageant stepped beyond its traditional borders,
some viewed its over-the-top extravagance and Western standards
of beauty emblematic of a kind of threatening, homogenized global
culture. Concern of this sort mounted when India -- which has
the greatest share of the world's poor and an extremely low
literacy rate among women -- hosted Miss World's 45th annual
Miss Greece, Irene Skliva, newly crowned
Miss World 1996, greets the crowd with the traditional Indian
salutation; the competition was staged in Bangalore that
year despite bomb scares, suicide threats and mass protest.
(AP/Wide World Photos)
India's bid to host the competition had already triggered broad
opposition across the spectrum, from Indian farmers to women's
groups, from right-wing Hindus of the Bharatiya Janata Party
to members of India's left-wing Communist Party. In the months
leading up to the event, protests focused on Miss World as a
symbol of global consumerism and an affront to Indian culture.
A women's coalition sought a court-ordered injunction against
the staging of the pageant. Newspaper editorials warned of the
parade of "Mattel-manufactured Barbie dolls" poised to
invade. Opposition turned violent when a group of protestors
attacked the offices of the Bangalore company organizing the
pageant. Activists also vandalized the showroom of a main sponsor
of the event, spreading cow dung around.
As the international beauties began arriving in Bangalore
in 1996, public demonstrations and sit-ins drew thousands of
people. The protests spread to Delhi. Demonstrators burned Miss
World effigies. Women staged their own mock competitions, wearing
makeshift crowns reading "Miss Unemployment," "Miss Disease"
and "Miss Illiteracy." With 20,000 armed policemen ready to
control the crowds India poised for casualties. Threats of mass
public suicide and reports of Maoist insurgents planning attacks
fueled the government's panic. By the competition's end, though,
only one protestor had died. He'd set himself on fire in protest
of Miss World.
Never before in its history had the Miss World competition
been so fiercely buffeted in the crossfire of social and political
unrest. And more than 2 billion people watched the pageant from
more than 150 countries.
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