Miss World comes to Nigeria

I am deeply saddened by the riots that have erupted between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria. It all started with an article published by ThisDay, a newspaper in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, the site of the inter-religious violence. Columnist Isioma Daniel wrote, “What would [the Prophet] Muhammad think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from among [the beauty pageant contestants].” Although I condemn the violence that followed the article’s publication, Daniel’s comments were inappropriate, insensitive, and offensive.


Still, I think the Muslims in Nigeria have a point about the Miss World pageant. I have always been disturbed by the whole concept of beauty pageants, which, to me, seem to be so demeaning toward women. During these events, scores of scantily-clad, albeit beautiful, women are paraded in front of a panel of judges (and millions of people), and one is eventually crowned “Miss ______.” Although I am sure that whoever will be crowned Miss World is a very talented and intelligent woman, I think a more fitting “Ms. World” would be someone like Mother Theresa, or Princess Diana, or Oprah Winfrey. These women have done, or continue to do, an immense amount of good in our world during their respective lifetimes. Do not misunderstand me; I do not ! advocate locking up women indoors and making them wear burqas. Still, beauty pageants treat women like show animals, stripping them of the dignity bestowed upon them by God Almighty.


This problem is not limited to beauty pageants. American society is rife with the denigration and degradation of women. Advertisers have used near-naked women to sell their products, from motorcycles to shampoos, for decades. A friend of mine once saw an ad for an ambulance in which the vehicle was photographed through the legs of a woman in a bikini. What, in God’s good name, does a bikini-clad woman have to do with ambulances? Furthermore, I seriously doubt that  the success of “Hooter’s,” a restaurant which features waitresses dressed in tight T-shirts and very short shorts, is due to their having great buffalo wings. All this is in addition to the innumerable strip establishments and “gentleman’s clubs,” that feature near naked (or totally naked) women performers, whose sole purpose is the! sexual gratification of the male patrons. This is not the way we should treat one-half of the human race. Although most Americans would not see it this way, using women as sex objects is as oppressive as forcing them to wear burqas and barring them from getting an education, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.  


The reason beauty pageants and the like disturb me so much is because Islam has instilled in me the duty to honor women. Islam put women on equal footing with men at a time when they were treated no better than animals. Islam gave women the right to inheritance, the right to run a business and spend their money how they wish, and the right to divorce. These rights were unthinkable in Seventh Century Arabia. In addition, Islam was the first to give women the right to vote, centuries before we amended the U.S. Constitution to do the same in 1920. Although many, many women in the Muslim world are abused and oppressed in the name of Islam, this occurs despite of and in direct contradiction to everything Islam stands for. In Islam, women are equal partners to men in the constant and difficult struggle to do God’s will on earth.


Still, the violence in Nigeria is truly devastating and should never have happened. It is quite clear that the roots of the fighting are much deeper than an offensive article and a beauty pageant. In Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, bank teller Lucy Uche hinted at the presence of an underlying religious tension in Nigerian society: “This was bound to happen. All we needed was a match.” In fact, the violence proved too much for the contest organizers to handle, and they decided to move the grand! finale from Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, to London.


It is my hope that this incident will cause Muslim and Christian Nigerians to take a hard look at themselves and examine why there is so much tension between their respective communities. Issuing death threats against Isioma Daniel, as the Deputy Governor of Zamfara state in Nigeria did on November 26, is wrong, un-Islamic, and I condemn it unequivocally. It will only worsen the religious divide among Nigerians. It is my hope that, out of the ashes of this tragedy, Muslim and Christian Nigerians will come together and build bridges of understanding and cooperation, for the good of Nigeria and the world at large.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for Beliefnet.com and the Independent Writers Syndicate.é He is also contributing author to the forthcoming book Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith, due to be released by Rodale in November 2002.