As Miss World Turns

As Miss World Turns

The war between religious fanaticism and secular modernity is fought over women’s bodies.


The war between religious fanaticism and secular modernity is fought over women’s bodies. Feminists have been saying this for years, not that anyone important was listening, but the Miss World riots in Kaduna, Nigeria, should make it obvious even to the dead white males at the Washington Post. Muslims, already on edge due to the presence in their country of so many lovelies on display, were apparently driven out of their minds by journalist Isioma Daniel’s suggestion in the Lagos-based newspaper ThisDay that Mohammed “would probably have chosen a wife among them.” By the time the smoke cleared and the bloody knives were put away, the local offices of the paper had been destroyed; more than 200 people, mostly Christian, had been murdered; hundreds more had been injured; and at least 4,500 left homeless. Nothing for the contestants to worry about, though: According to President Olusegun Obasanjo, “It could happen any time irresponsible journalism is committed against Islam.” When in doubt, blame free speech. Nonetheless, the pageant relocated to London, while the governor of Zamfara State issued a fatwa (later rescinded) against Ms. Daniel, urging Muslims to kill her–“Just like the blasphemous Indian writer Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed.” She fled the country.

Not a good week for cultural relativism, on the whole.

Militant Islam may be the beginning of the end for multiculturalism, the live-and-let-live philosophy that asks, Why can’t we all enjoy our differences? Ethnic food and world music are all very well, but fatwas and amputations and suicide bombings just don’t put a smile on the day. In twelve Nigerian states, Sharia is now the law of the land, and in the background of the Miss World fiasco lies the case of Amina Lawal, condemned to death by stoning by a Sharia court for the crime of having a baby out of wedlock. Because of the shocking brutality of the verdict and its blatant misogyny–needless to say, the man who impregnated her was not charged–some feminists had unsuccessfully urged the Miss World Pageant to boycott Nigeria, and a number of contestants–Misses Denmark, Panama, Costa Rica, Switzerland and South Africa–refused to take part. They are the true heroines of this discouraging episode.

Say what you will about beauty pageants, if it’s bikinis versus burkas, you’ve got to be for bathing suits. British feminists who condemned the pageant as a sexist cattle call seemed to be missing the point, somehow. Yes, it’s a sexist cattle call. And yes, the Miss World Pageant, seen each year by more than 2 billion viewers around the globe, helps disseminate white Western ideals of female beauty–and the concomitant body-image problems–to yet more distant lands (last year’s winner, Miss Nigeria, the first black African winner, is, unlike most Nigerian women, Vogue-model slim). But that is not the big story right now. The big story is the growing power of fundamentalist maniacs.

Speaking of whom, no one is getting more mileage out of Islamic fundamentalism than Christian fundamentalists. Many divines have been quick to portray Christianity as the religion of peace and love as opposed to the murderous, false teachings of Islam. Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, who spoke at Bush’s inauguration, said Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion.” Jerry Falwell has called Mohammed a “terrorist”–a “pedophile,” too, chimed in the Rev. Jerry Vine. While President Bush keeps gamely asserting that Islam is a religion of peace, the foreign-policy hard right rolls its eyes. The Koran inherently leads to terrorism, Norman Podhoretz argues, because it commands Muslims “to wage holy war, or jihad, against the ‘infidels.'” Does that make the Gospels responsible for anti-Semitism? Not as long as right-wing Christians are Israel’s best friends.

And what do Muslim feminists, caught in the middle, make of all this? Given the bad image of Western feminism in the Muslim world, it’s not surprising that they make their way carefully. On a recent segment of Democracy Now! Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Azizah al-Hibri insisted passionately that the conviction of Amina Lawal was against Islamic law–where were the four male witnesses to the act of penetration? Why wasn’t the man charged too? What about the doctrine of the sleeping fetus (don’t ask)? The problem wasn’t the Koran but its corruption, both agreed, going on to energetically bash Western feminists for obsessing about the veil instead of poverty and the United States for promoting Islamic extremists from Gen. Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan to bin Laden himself. “Islam,” said al-Hibri, “gives women all the rights we are calling for.” And yet, by the end of the program, Afzal-Khan was speaking sympathetically of separating mosque and state.

I’m no expert–to me the Koran, like the Old and New Testaments, seems both implicitly and explicitly sexist, and retrograde in other ways as well. Still, the human mind is a wonderful thing and modernity is a powerful force. We don’t kill witches anymore, although Exodus explicitly bids us to, or cite the Bible to justify slavery, indentured servitude, polygyny, forcibly marrying widows to their brothers-in-law or impregnating the maid if the wife is infertile, after the example of Abraham. Even the humiliating Jewish menstrual laws have been reinterpreted under the pressure of feminism and the sexual revolution: Suddenly, after thousands of years, they’re not about pollution and uncleanness, they’re about giving women more power in the bedroom and having a more meaningful marriage. Moreover, they are retroactively understood to have always contained this meaning. Christian feminists have no trouble contextualizing out of existence even the most plainly worded of St. Paul’s numerous male-supremacist commands: Women, obey your husbands, keep silent in church, cover your heads and all the rest. Religious texts mean what people want them to mean, and always have. If the whole elaborate institution of the papacy can be balanced on a single remark of Jesus to Peter (a remark that to Protestants, of course, means something quite different), Islamic feminists can surely find in the Koran proof of Allah’s commitment to women’s rights. It won’t be a perfect fit, any more than modern feminist readings of the Bible are a perfect fit, but it will do for the time being.

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