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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Pageant Protests

For India, they underscore the challenges of change

THE SOUND AND FURY lasted more than a month. The protesters: a coalition of Indian feminists, farmers, leftists and cultural and religious activists. The target of their wrath: last week's Miss World beauty contest, held for the first time in India. Despite scattered violence and the preventive arrests of about 1,000 demonstrators -- 15 of whom had threatened to burn themselves -- the pageant concluded peacefully. But the storm it generated has raised important questions about Indian society in an era of rapid change.

A key complaint against the pageant was that it demeans women and promotes cosmetics and plastic surgery. Many Indian women would probably agree. "The moral behind Miss World is that the thinnest woman with the fewest wrinkles wins -- which excludes 99% of women," says Mrs. Simran Bhargava, editor of the Indian edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. Activists also assert that the generous display of flesh by the contestants is obscene and that the pageant offends Indian values and culture.

The real issue, however, is not obscenity -- there is more female exposure in Indian films. It should be the raising of women's status. Two-thirds of India's women are illiterate and tens of thousands are driven into prostitution every year by poverty. Then there are the countless "dowry deaths," in which women are murdered by their husbands or in-laws for not bringing enough bridal gifts.

Is Miss World contradictory to Indian culture? Beauty pageants have been held every year in women's colleges throughout the country without a murmur of protest. In fact, so popular are these events that Femina, India's leading magazine for women, organizes an annual Miss India contest whose winners have participated in international beauty pageants for many years. In 1994, Indians won both the Miss World and Miss Universe titles (the latter for the first time), to much domestic acclaim.

So why the fuss now? Clearly, some protesting groups were seeking to exploit the pageant for political purposes. Chief among them was the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has spearheaded the anti-Miss World crusade. The party hopes to win the votes of conservative Indians in the event of a mid-term poll, which could be held as early as next year if the shaky minority government of Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda collapses. The BJP has long promoted cultural nationalism as a substitute for secularism, and its rhetoric strikes a chord among many Indians.

Left-wing activists had a different reason for opposing the pageant. They are outraged that such a lavish show should have been staged when at least 200 million Indians still live in grinding poverty. Mr. M.D. Nanjundaswamy, a veteran socialist who leads a militant farmers' group opposing the presence of U.S. multinationals, described the Miss World show as "just another instance of how India is falling for the worldwide trend toward commoditization and internationalization of everything."

Many Indians couldn't agree less with Mr. Nanjundaswamy about the pageant. But there is a deeper reason why they tend to disdain foreign companies and the consumerist culture they promote. As a predominantly Hindu nation colonized by the British for 150 years and ruled by Muslim conquerors for a millennium, Indians have an understandable mistrust of foreigners. Further, India's economic reforms and market opening have exposed its people to foreign products and television like never before. Many Indians are fearful that imported TV programs will pollute their culture and values.

But a civilization that has not only withstood countless historical onslaughts but also shaped ways of life in other countries cannot easily be corrupted -- least of all by a beauty pageant. Indians who look askance at Miss World might remember that, like people in most developing nations, they are faced with contemporary realities that make it impossible to pursue a purely Indian path to modernization. Rapid advances in communications and information technology are creating hybrid cultures in which traditional, indigenous values are both diffused and enriched by external stimuli. Throughout their long history, Indians have shown a remarkable ability to absorb as well as to adapt to foreign influences without losing their distinct identity. There is little need to fear that will change.


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