The Repression of Nepali Womanhood
Some say that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Others say that behind every successful man there is a woman. The role of women in shaping the psyche of men as well as women is indisputable. The women of Nepal have taken large strides over the past 15 years. But consider these current facts: the median age of first marriage for females is 17; women still have an average of more than 3 children; 281 women out of every 100,000 still die at child birth; only 23% of women give birth with a skilled attendant on hand; married women have no right to their parents’ assets; and so on. The Virginia Slims cigarette ad “You’ve come a long way, baby” does not quite apply yet to the women of Nepal.
Last week, the Miss Nepal pageant was postponed once again, for the fourth time, due to the protests of a group of Maoist women who are barking that beauty pageants exploit women and take away their fundamental rights. A letter signed by a Deputy Superintendent of Police from the District Administration Office in Hanuman Dhoka was delivered to the organizers, Hidden Treasure, at about 7 p.m. on the eve of the pageant. The letter instructed that, keeping in mind peace and security issues, the pageant must not take place. Translation: the security forces, i.e. the Police, was unable or unwilling to guarantee that the pageant would not be disrupted by violent undemocratic protests. The Defense Ministry also instructed the Nepal Army to not let the pageant be held in the auditorium of the Army Officers’ Club, as scheduled. All this happened on the evening of the pre-judging of the contestants, carried out over 5 long hours by 11 judges (this writer included).
The morning after the receipt of the ominous letter, the organizers held a meeting with the 17 contestants, their parents/guardians, as well as the majority of the judges. The purported purpose of this meeting was to seek the parents’ views on whether the pageant should take place as scheduled on that day, 27th September, or not. The organizers briefed the meeting on the situation and opened the floor for comments. Parents, contestants as well as some of the judges aired their opinions. The first issue was whether Hidden Treasure would be breaking the law by holding the pageant despite the letter of stay. The fact that the letter’s authority covered only Kathmandu district became quite apparent. Since the alternate plan was to hold the pageant at the International Club, which happens to be located in Lalitpur district, any legal liability to the organizers did not exist. The second issue was whether the pageant should be held that day or postponed again. The vast majority of the contestants wanted it held that day and were willing to brave any repercussions from the protesters. The majority of the parents also felt that their children had been kept hanging, disrupting their normal lives, for too long. All the judges present, except one, firmly believed that the pageant must be held that day.
The meeting chair proposed a break to discuss the issue among the various groups. The talented young ladies caucused among themselves while the other groups mixed informally discussing the issues. In this period of almost 2 hours, I interacted with every group. Majority of the contestants, parents and all the judges remaining then were for holding the pageant that very day. It was only the organizers who remained non-committal throughout, consulting mainly with the one judge and the one parent who wanted the pageant postponed.
The meeting reconvened and the Chair from the organizers announced that they would not go hurriedly for the pageant that day since it would be like going for “instant pleasure” (his unfortunate words) at the price of the “image and prestige” of the pageant. The weak reason given was that this is what the parents wanted; I personally observed only one parent who wanted this. Actually, Hidden Treasure had lost its nerve! The chagrin in the lovely faces of the contestants was a woeful sight.
Some underlying issues are apparent from the above dismal story. On what basis are the protesters saying that the pageant is exploiting women? The contestants were all educated talented young ladies and winning the title would mean the opening up of new opportunities and careers for Miss Nepal. They were certainly not there to flaunt their bodies. There is no bikini competition in the Miss Nepal contest. In fact the scoring for the 5 finalists gives 80% weight to intelligence and only 20% to beauty. These protesting women Maoists are also surely not aware that the current Miss World comes from the land of Mao - China! The letter from the government cited “peace and security”; actually the authorities were hiding behind this facade in their efforts to appease the protesters. As for the organizers, they failed the contestants and the spirit of the competition. When they could have championed the cause of women’s rights, they succumbed to the complacency endemic to this country.
Seventeen young women, from all over the country, came with their dreams to participate in the finals of this pageant. Their dreams were rudely shattered by the vagaries of a group of uninformed politically motivated protesters, a government that does not govern, and organizers who failed the aspirations of the contestants in every way. When the Miss World pageant is held in Johannesburg, South Africa this December, it is unlikely that Nepal will be represented. It will be a loss for the country and especially for Nepali womanhood.
For information to the ignorant, The Miss World Organization owns and manages the annual Miss World finals, a competition that has grown into the world's largest live annual pageant television event with global viewers in more than 200 countries. Since its launch in 1951, the Miss World Organization has raised more than £250 million for children’s charities. Aside from raising millions of pounds for charities around the globe under the banner of its 'Beauty with a Purpose' program, Miss World is also credited with directly influencing a dramatic increase in tourism in Sanya, China, host of the previous Miss World finals.
So, Welcome to New Nepal! Its ignorance, bureaucracy and complacency rival that of any of the “Old Nepal’s”.