Frontline World

NIGERIA - The Road North, January 2003

Synopsis of "The Road North"

A Chronicle of the Pageant's Troubles

Interview With Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

Five Diverse Voices

Learn More about Nigeria

Sharia Law, Human Rights, the Role of Women




A Pageant Is Born - 1950s Decade of the Indiscreet Contestant - 1960s Feminists Attack the Pageant - 1970s Miss World’s Facelift - 1980s A Globalized Culture Clash - 1990s The Show Must Go On - 2000s

A Globalized Culture Clash
Indian university students burn Miss World effigies during demonstrations leading up to the 1996 contest.
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 and poor.

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 competition.

Miss Greece, Irene Skliva, newly crowned Miss World 1996
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.

NEXT - 2000s: The Show Must Go On

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