Every now and then an idea comes along that serves a genuinely valuable human rights purpose and subverts stereotypes at the same time. Such is the case with the Miss Landmine competition, a controversial contest for women who have been disabled or disfigured by landmines. The purpose: to empower women and challenge concepts of physical perfection while raising global and local awareness of landmines. The stereotype: that women must be physically "perfect" to be beautiful.
Undetonated landmines, as we've written before, are a threat to millions of people in at least 80 countries around the world. Every hour, someone somewhere is killed or injured by a landmine. But in most of the world's prosperous developed nations, this crisis is virtually invisible.
It's believed that women make up a minority of landmine victims. But according to the United Nations Mine Action Service, fewer women than men receive mobility aid, such as artificial limbs, after being injured by landmines, and women may receive less attention in the immediate aftermath of a landmine blast. Additionally, women disabled by landmines are less likely to receive emergency care and are more likely to have spouses who want an immediate divorce. Poverty soon follows, especially if a woman has children.
That's one reason the Miss Landmine contest is particularly appealing. It challenges the idea that a woman who has been disfigured or is missing a limb can't be a useful member of society. It also strives to upend the standard of beauty that says only women without flaws or disabilities can be beautiful. The purposes of the contest, according to the Miss Landmine Manifesto, are:
Miss Landmine is taking place this year in Angola, where an estimated 2.2 million residents are at risk of being hurt or killed by a landmine on a daily basis. The contestants are all women who have lost a leg or part of a leg to a landmine; the award for winning is a prosthetic leg from a leading orthopedic clinic in Norway. Unlike the contestants in a typical beauty pageant, the Miss Landmine entrants are every shape, age and size; Maria da Fatima Conceição (Miss Moxico) is pregnant. Each contestant works collaboratively with contest organizers to raise awareness of the global landmine threat, receiving a stipend of US $200 for each day she works on the project. According to contest organizer Morten Traavik, many have been offered employment by landmine aid organizations. All of the women have ambitious goals and aspirations far beyond being crowned a beauty queen.
The Miss Landmine contest has drawn its share of criticism from feminists who find it exploitative. As a feminist myself, I can certainly concede that they have some valid points: Photographing impoverished Angolan women in tourist destinations they will never visit as vacationers themselves, and in clothes donated by American Apparel (a company known for its misogyny and sexualization of very young and "exotic" women), are questionnable choices. However, the contest's goals make a pretty convincing case that despite its beauty pageant trappings, Miss Landmine is a contest that can raise awareness and make a difference.
I recently talked to Morten Traavik about Miss Landmine - I was curious to know more, and to know how he responded to criticism of the project (more than the few sentences he gets in traditional media stories). So I contacted him and here's what he had to say:
Redefining Beauty: Chasing Miss Landmine at http://www.orato.com/current-events/2007/11/28/redefining-beauty-chasing-miss-landmine