When Miss World's visit to India sparked unrest

Pinaranka Chopra

The announcement that the Miss World pageant's upcoming edition will take place in India has brought back memories of its previous visit to the nation, which was met with violent protests, self-immolation threats, and prophecies of a cultural apocalypse. The BBC's Zoya Mateen looks back at that turbulent period and assesses how things have changed since then.

1996 was the year. India had abandoned its protectionist policies a few years prior and opened its markets to foreign trade. Setting up shop in the nation were international companies like Revlon, L'Oreal, and KFC, which occasionally caused conflicts with local activists and manufacturers.

Since Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai, who would later become Bollywood stars, had won Miss Universe and Miss World, respectively, two years prior, beauty pageants were already well-known in India at that time. However, others criticized the emphasis these competitions placed on physical beauty, and millions of young women aspired to follow them and begin glittering careers.

However, violent protests that broke out weeks before the event and made headlines around the world involved everyone from right-wing politicians to militant farmers. In order to protect the contestants, the swimsuit round had to be moved to the Seychelles.

The Los Angeles Times reported that supporters of the pageant, who have the sympathy of the majority of Indians, find it difficult to comprehend how such a trivial event could have caused such a commotion.

According to filmmaker Paromita Vohra, the responses revealed a struggle between traditional values and the allure of a contemporary, glitzy world.

"Miss World visited India around the same time that the market went global. The culture was churned, and there was a response to that churn, she claims.

Sushmita Sen
Miss Universe 1994 was Sushmita Sen of India (pictured on the left).

In India, things have undoubtedly changed since 1996. The nation is home to a million-dollar fashion industry that is known around the world for its imaginative work and meticulous craftsmanship, and it has won at least half a dozen more international pageants. The content of movies and web series is frequently risqué, and discussions of women's fashion and beauty standards have evolved.

A business owned by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan organized the pageant in India in 1996. Reports state that the company employed more than 2,000 technicians, 500 dancers, and even 16 elephants for the occasion.

However, the location, Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) city, experienced violent protests weeks before the performance.

Women's organization members made a mass suicide threat, claiming that events like Miss World would "increase promiscuity and prostitution.".

One of the group's leaders told The Washington Post that wearing miniskirts is not a part of their traditional culture. CNN reported that one man committed suicide "in protest.".

A farmers' group threatened to set fire to the cricket stadium where the pageant would be held, but that threat was not carried out. The pageant was also opposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently in power in India.

Miss world protests 1996
Weeks were spent on the streets by women protesting from various organizations.

A large number of feminists also voiced their opposition, and one group even staged a mock pageant, where contestants were given titles like Miss Poverty and Miss Homeless.

Thousands of police officers were stationed throughout the city, some of whom were dressed in combat gear. A military base and some preliminary events took place outside of Bengaluru. The most contentious round, of course, was relocated outside of the nation.

When that occurred, according to former model Rani Jeyaraj, who represented India at the pageant in 1996, she was relieved. I was already overburdened by that point from giving interviews to channels. It was wonderful to be taken to a small island where I wouldn't constantly be bothered. ".

The contestants were shielded from the controversy as much as they could be, spending weeks cooped up inside a opulent five-star hotel with little exposure to the outside world. However, Ms. Jeyaraj says, "It felt strange to be alone and unable to meet friends and family.

"There was a time, hours before the final competition, when I nearly gave up because I was so exhausted. ".

indian police stop demonstrators from a leftist women's group during a 23 November protest against the Miss World beauty pageant in Bangalore. The group attempted to disrupt traffic while marching toward Chinnaswamy Stadium, the venue for the pageant final later 23 November.
For days, protesters in Bengaluru blocked roads.

The backlash against swimsuit-clad women and beauty pageants wasn't the first or the last.

An event outside the Miss America pageant was organized by a feminist group in 1968, and protesters filled a trash can with cosmetics. In support of women's emancipation, activists entered the UK's Royal Albert Hall two years later and threw flour and rotten vegetables at the Miss World stage.

Following weeks of protests from conservative Islamic groups, the Miss World final was moved from Indonesia's capital Jakarta to the tourist hotspot Bali in 2013. Contestants were required to wear "modest, traditional Balinese sarongs" in Bali instead of the bikini round.

In 1996, swimsuits weren't completely foreign to India; Ms. Vohra notes that while it wasn't common, some Bollywood heroines were already defying expectations and donning them. In swimsuit competitions abroad, several Indian contestants had also taken part, including Rai and Sen.  .

Ms. Vohra, however, asserts that perhaps the concern surrounding the 1996 competition was also brought on by worries that "middle class, upper-caste women," who typically took part in these events, would be seen in swimsuits in public.

Aishwarya Rai
Aishwarya Rai in the swimsuit portion of Miss World 1994, where she took first place.

Are beauty pageants still relevant nearly three decades after the protests in India?

They once gave women a way in to a world that was glamorous and prosperous; if you became a model, you could travel the world and become a cultural icon. Even outspoken American feminist Gloria Steinem joined one when she was a teenager because she claimed it seemed "like a way out of a not too great life in a pretty poor neighborhood.".

Although there has been a mixed success rate, pageants have also been used as a route into Bollywood in India, and Ms. Jeyaraj claims that "that connection is the reason the glamour around it doesn't reduce.".

However, many young Indian women no longer view a beauty pageant as the only way to do that or as an empowering means of realizing their aspirations.

According to Ms. Vohra, beauty pageants were never intended to be sellers of real beauty or an ideal standard. She refers to them as an economic phenomenon that is "rooted in the market.".

When Miss World gained popularity in India, it brought with it a new conception of beauty, one characterized by tiny, sculpted waistlines, sherbet-colored gowns, and heavily contoured faces.

According to Ms. Vohra, women in Bollywood films from 30 years ago were more voluptuous than the globalized supermodel ideal of beauty.

However, the idea of an ideal female figure changed thanks to international pageants.

According to Ms. Vohra, "And it allowed women to enter that public life only if they were like that." She adds that Indian women today are independent of these competitions for opportunities.

"As a result, I believe that the upcoming Miss World pageant in India will be just another occasion. At most, it's a cute throwback, she says.

Femina Miss India World 2022, Sini Shetty gestures during a promotional event in Kolkata on August 25, 2022.
At the upcoming Miss World competition, Sini Shetty will represent India.

But for those who are passionate about pageants, it is still a world they deeply love and believe in, not a thing of the past.

"These contests are not just about showcasing beauty; they are also about showcasing their intelligence and accomplishments on a global stage. One of the judges at the 1996 pageant, fashion designer Prasad Bidapa, describes it as "their passport to the world.".

Since "everyone wants to look better and dream big," he asserts, it is impossible to wish away the appeal of beauty pageants.

Some individuals who possess scientific talent go on to become scientists. Some people are so attractive that they achieve superstardom. ".

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