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Wed, Jun 26, 2013
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Vexing questions for a beauty contest
by John Mcbeth

I have three pertinent questions for the Indonesian organisers of the Sept 28 Miss World pageant.

They are now facing the inevitable backlash from radical Islamic groups as they seek to stage the first contest in a Muslim country.

Why did they agree to Indonesia as the venue in the first place, knowing it would be a target and apparently agreeing early on not to include bikinis in the format for the first time?

Why did the people on the Indonesian end think it would not be a target after everything that has gone on here over the last few years, particularly when Western culture has been the overarching issue?

And who made the decision to stage the preliminaries in Bali, where it might have stood a chance of going ahead untroubled - and the final night on the outskirts of Jakarta, in the heart of conservative West Java?

Miss World may have made the huge concession of axing the bikinis for the 137 contestants, but replacing them with beach sarongs is hardly likely to put off the hardliners. They don't want the pageant at all.

As we saw with the nude-less Indonesian edition of Playboy several years ago, it is not so much the nature of the content but the fact that Miss World, like Playboy, is an iconic Western creation.

That's the target.

Even after the rather outrageous Lady Gaga offered to put on a few more clothes and tone down her singing act, it wasn't enough to prevent the cancellation of her sold-out Jakarta concert last year because of security concerns.

The Indonesian Council of Ulema, a quasi-official religious watchdog on public morals, is demanding that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono call off what it claims is "an excuse to show off women's body parts".

The hardline Hizbut Tahrir and Islam Reformist Movements have both threatened protests.

But no word from the Islambased Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) - probably because it has women problems of its own that hardly give it a leg to stand on.

Caught up in a corruption scandal that has also involved tawdry hotel sex trysts, the PKS has come to exemplify the hypocrisy that often attends those who sit in moral judgment on others and who blame women for their own lack of restraint.

For all that, radical groups know what they are doing. With Indonesia's reputation for religious tolerance on the decline, they have shown an unerring aim for issues that strike a nerve with the devout and the conservative among the Muslim mainstream.

The government has yet to make any official comment, but Deputy Tourism Minister Sapta Nirwanda has suggested the contestants appear in bikinis in a closed room with only the jury present.

Failing that, he proposes contestants wear batik or the all-enveloping kebaya. The problem with that, of course, is there is already a national dress segment.

More to the point, Miss World is what it is - a beauty contest, with a little talent breaking a sometimes impossible deadlock.

Television station RCTI, the official broadcaster and local organiser, says the bikini ban is to respect traditional customs and culture.

On Java, yes, but not on Bali where bikinis are as common as in any global beach resort.

Miss World Organisation chairman Julia Morley said the decision was made as early as last year. As she told Associated Press in a scripted response: "I cannot see why when you go to somebody's country you should not behave respectfully."

That's all very well, Ms Morley, but I would hazard a rough guess and suggest that for many male viewers at least, the bikini is the difference between the "on" and "off" buttons on the television set.

The Miss World crowning ceremony has been held in only eight countries in its 62-year history.

The only time the contest was partly staged in a Muslim-majority country was in Abu Dhabi in 2009, but the final night was in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Now for a little more relevant trivia.

The only Miss World winners representing a Muslim nation have been Egyptian Antigone Costanda in 1954 and Turkey's Azra Akin in 2002, but Ms Costanda was of Greek heritage and Ms Akin was born in Holland and has spent her life in Europe.

The sole Indonesian to reach the semi-finals was American-educated Astrid Yuandi in 2011. But while she may not have won the contest, the accomplished pianist came home with the Beauty With A Purpose Award.

Rival Miss Universe traces its origins back to 1952, a year after Ms Yolande Betbeze, the convent- educated winner of the Miss America pageant, refused to wear a swimsuit and still won.

The Miss Universe pageant has been staged at 22 different venues, none of them in the Muslim world. In 1971, Lebanese- Christian Georgina Rizk became the first - and only - woman from the Middle East to to be crowned Miss Universe.

Five years later, Ms Rizk lived up to her name and married Palestinian Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of operations for the Black September terrorist movement. He was killed by Israeli intelligence agents in 1979.

Beauty contests have often been a target of Indonesian hardliners.

In 2005, the Islamic Defenders Front officially complained to police about Miss Indonesia Nadine Chandrawinata appearing in a bikini at the 2006 Miss Universe pageant.

Nothing came of the complaint, which was based on a little- known 1984 Education Ministry decree forbidding the holding of beauty contests that contradict religious and social values.

Although the decree is still technically in effect, in practice it has been disregarded since President Suharto's downfall in 1998.

Given what is going on now, that could very well represent another threat the Miss World organisers may not be aware of.

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