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Miss World vs. Muslim law

Nigeria’s capital is slated to host one of the world’s most glamorous beauty contests in November, but the event is mired in the political tensions of the country. By Kari Huus.
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Nigeria’s capital is slated to host one of the world’s most glamorous beauty contests in November, but the event is mired in the country’s political tensions. After a Muslim court ruled last week in favor of the stoning death of a Nigerian single mother for having a child out of wedlock, some Miss World contestants have threatened to boycott the event. At the same time, Muslim groups in Nigeria are calling for cancellation of the event, which they describe as a costly and shameful “parade of nudity.”

The contest scheduled for Nov. 30 in Abuja, brings together more than 100 pageant winners from around the world and is expected to be broadcast to more than 140 countries.

For those not offended by the pageant, it is the source of some pride in Nigeria. The program will showcase the current Miss World, Nigeria’s Agbani Darego, in what is billed as the most widely watched single event on television. Some also hope it will help the country restart its floundering tourism industry.

But Nigeria is simmering with tensions between Muslims and Christians — each accounting for about half of the total population. For more than a decade, the country was under secular military rule. But with the return of civilian rule three years ago, regions have been allowed more autonomy, and largely Muslim areas have re-established the use of shariah law, with a system of harsh penalties for transgressions. Tensions have erupted into violence, which has killed more than 1,000 people.

Pouring fuel on the fire, and prompting a storm of international criticism, a court in the conservative Muslim region of Funtua last week upheld a sentence of death by stoning for 30-year-old Amina Lawal, who is charged with engaging in sex outside marriage. She had a child more than nine months after her divorce from her husband.

It is the second case of a woman facing a possible death sentence in the Muslim court of shariah law but the first appeal to fail. The woman has been granted until her child born out of wedlock has finished breastfeeding before she is executed. In the meantime, her lawyers say she will appeal to a higher court. President Olusegun Obasanjo has expressed his sympathy but decided not to intervene in the case, saying he is confident that the appeal process will result in dismissal of the case.

I don’t think what is going on will lead to her death,” Obasanjo told reporters. “Indeed, if it does, which I very much doubt, I will weep for myself, I will weep for Amina and I will weep for Nigeria.”

Miss Norway Kathrine Soerland called the Funtua court’s decision “utterly revolting,” according to reports by Agence France Presse and the British Broadcast Corp., and several countries’ candidates, including the Netherlands and Kenya, were considering a boycott. Poland’s committee also voiced concern about the safety of contestants, in light of the rising tensions.

Some Muslim groups are outraged that Nigeria is holding the event, particularly because it falls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“The beauty contest is not only abhorrent and obnoxious but also a mockery of the nation’s conscience, since Nigerians are known to be committed religious people,” Dahiru Muhammad Argungu, head of the Jama’atul Muslimin group, said in a statement.

“A beauty contest is nothing but a parade of nudity which is against the norms of all religions and morally civilized societies and cultures, as it has a high potential to breed promiscuity.”

The National Council of Muslim Youth (NACOMYO) vowed to disrupt the contest.

NACOMYO, in a statement by its national president, Alhaji Ishaq Kunle Sanni, condemned “in strong terms the proposed hosting of the Miss World competition in Nigeria by federal government agencies.

“We cannot fathom what benefit would accrue to the nation, in a show in which nakedness of women is exhibited with absolute (recklessness) and all sorts of immoralities come in its wake.”

The organization said Nigeria was wasting millions of naira in hosting a beauty pageant when “policemen and civil servants are being owed arrears of salaries.”

“It also shows insensitivity on the part of government to the feelings of Muslims who constituted the majority in this country for the show of shame to be organized during the period of Ramadan fasting,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.