Friday, February 07, 2014

Hit & Miss

The Miss World circus came to Bali recently to a predictable storm of controversy

Last September 28, 137 comely young ladies flew over to Bali in order to participate in the legendary Miss World beauty pageant. While on the Island of the Gods, these fine bodies of women paraded around, showed off their dazzling pearly whites and expressed their hopes for either world peace or whirled peas. Alas (or thankfully, depending on your attitude to these things) these glamorously gregarious princesses didn't get to don any bikini-esque swimwear this year, due to a predictably splenetic outcry from the country's hardest of hardcore Muhammadans, and instead dressed in slightly more conservative sarongs.

Indeed, the most recent Miss World competition was originally supposed to have been held at the Sentul International Convention Center, which is located just outside of the city of Bogor in West Java. Bogor has proved to be a veritable hive of fundamentalist activity in recent years though (with the accent being placed firmly on the mentalist) and Christians and other Muslim sects have borne the brunt of the radicals' wrath, occasionally at the cost of their very lives.

And so, following threats and various furious proclamations from such organisations as Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia and the perhaps-not-particularly-well-named Islam Reformist Movement, as well as our old friends the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the competition was eventually moved over to the predominantly Hindu island of Bali. The bikini ban remained however.

This is perhaps indicative of the power that these organisations now wield over public life here, as what could be more normal than wearing a bikini in Bali? Well, going totally topless perhaps, as used to be the cultural norm among Balinese women before Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, issued a decree forcing them to cover up their assets in the 1950s, thereby bringing to an end a 1000 year tradition and initiating a whole new one, namely shame at their own voluptuous nakedness.

This isn't the first time that sexual prudery has nipped a mass-entertainment event in the bud in Indonesia in recent years though. Scantily clad pop superstar Lady Gaga, for example, was forced to cancel a Jakarta concert when Muslim hardliners threatened to torch the venue. Again though, as with Bali's breasts, it should be pointed out that placing the blame on Western moral degeneracy is to ignore Indonesia's own sensual traditions, such as the cleavage revealing kebaya that Javanese women have traditionally worn. Conversely, the increasing numbers of local ladies choosing (?) to wear the Islamic hijab, jilbab or even full burkas are submitting to an imperative that is as much cultural import as Gaga herself is.

Perhaps though it would prove instructive to take a brief look at the Miss World website at this point. Apparently, the competition has been going since 1951. The site also reveals that, "In 1980, the major changes in the Miss World judging process were implemented. For the first time, personality and intelligence came into the evaluation and, of equal importance was that vital statistics were no longer deemed vital."

Well, I think that I would be viewing this claim somewhat sceptically if I were you, taking the lack of 200lb Ph.Ds. in the contest as prima facie evidence. The official Miss World website also tells us that the competition has mainly been organised by the late Eric Morley's Mecca Leisure Group (sometimes life seems to throw up ironies so delicious that there simply has to be a God).

Times change though. Gender politics civilise societies and the upshot has been the feminists who started taking a swipe at Miss World in the early ’70s. Here's a quick challenge for you, dear readers. There follows two quotes on the subject of Miss World. Your task is to decide which one was uttered by a feminist and which by an Islamic preacher.

Number one: "Beauty pageants’ process of judging women by their physical attributes is deeply offensive and damaging to women's dignity."

Number two: "Raise your voice against this appalling offence against women. Beauty pageants treat women as if they were objects that can be compared and judged."

Taken your best shot? Good. Well I can reveal that the first quotation comes from a spokesman for the MUI (Indonesian Council of Ulema), while the second featured in a statement made by the feminist group, Object. How did you get on?

Superficial similarities between these two pronouncements aside though, I think it's fair to say that the claims made by fundamentalist Islamic males that they are looking after women's best interests have to be viewed in the context of honour killings, full body-and-face coverings, educational disenfranchisement, genital mutilation, polygamy and poor old Malala Yousafzai and Aesha Mohammadzai (Google those names if you are unsure).

Fundamentalist religion of this Saudi/Afghan flavour seems to be on the rise in Indonesia and poses a real challenge for the government here (which is, to say the least, not rising to meet that challenge or even enforcing the law properly). Indonesia also passed a pornography law a few years back which sets the public-indecency bar very low indeed. Although, given the tsunamis of filth that spill forth from the Internet these days, perhaps such a law is a rearguard action in an ultimately losing battle (and let's be clear here that Jakartans at least are vociferous consumers of web and DVD naughtiness).

Fundamentalist religion does seem to lavish an inordinate amount of attention on issues of sexuality, given the wars, famines, poverty, disease and potential environmental collapse that currently stalk the globe. Whether it's purple-faced Islamic preachers or fire-and-brimstone American Baptists (all men of course), sexual guilt and repression have galvanised the most faithful of the faithful and supplied monotheism is with its neurotic energy ever since men and women first learned to walk upright and found that their hands fell to a natural resting position next to their genitals.

All of those bearded young men clutching rifles in one hand and copies of the holy book in the other, sublimating their sexual tensions through militaristic fervour, all of those "celibate" priests touching up little boys, are surely in the grip of some kind of dark energy that doesn't inspire humankind's better nature. And so, whither Miss World in this demonic cesspool of human sexuality? Well, for me, in 2013, it all seems somewhat quaint and amusingly old-fashioned, but my heathen arse is surely going to hell in any case.