Miss Landmine: Empowerment or Exploitation?

The following is a guest blog posting by Dr. Jean Chapman, Research Associate at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Montréal. She researches gender and mine action issues. For other articles on gender and mine action, click here.

In a quasi-creative moment a male, Norwegian theatre director put landmines and beauty contests to the test. The issue, the man avers, was to highlight the plight of landmine survivors in Angola. Amputee women were flown to Luanda where they participated in photo shoots on the beach in the setting sun in their swim wear, and indoors in traditional dress. The initiative was sponsored by the American Embassy in Angola, two British-based humanitarian demining organizations whose colleagues located the contestants. Miss Landmine 2008 received a gold leg.

After the contest, an exhibition of photographs of Angolan amputee women beauty contestants was mounted at an orthopedic hospital in Oslo, Norway, in October 2007. Earlier, an exhibition in Bergen, Norway, attracted 7,412 visitors, the best ever attended event at the Leprosy Museum.

Empowerment is when an amputee is chosen as the most beautiful women in Angola because she is beautiful. That implies that everyone is invited to compete: amputees, non-amputees, and women of all races. That was not the case. There was no contest for men even though a male double amputee is the fastest man in the world on his carbon fibre J-blades. In the North, sledge hockey, for men with lower body disabilities, is a team sport in the Paralympic Games. Male amputee veterans of the Iraq War are training to capture the podium at the next Paralympics. Is the only option for women amputees their objectification? A gold leg? Is this to match the shoes made of gold that able-bodied people wear in Angola, Norway, perhaps? Is there a racist undertone? Would European female amputees sign on to a beauty contest with photographs flashed around the world so that the Humanitarian Mine Action Sector can vote for a winner? Would empowerment for European amputees derive from the Leprosy Museum or the Bergen Museum, or neither?

Next stop Kampuchea for Miss Landmine 2009 where the theatre is unlikely to be the opulent offices of the Cambodia Mine Action Authority, or the sprawling American Embassy. I’ll put money on the Documentation Centre in Phnom Penh: a gender-free environment.

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~ by Matthew Bolton on 6 March 2009.

5 Responses to “Miss Landmine: Empowerment or Exploitation?”

  1. Thanks to Dr Chapman for bringing this bizarre competition to our attention. I do agree that it is difficult to see how anyone has been ’empowered’ as a result of the contest in what appears to be a most grostesque abuse of power by the organisers of the event. They perhaps inaccurately assume that disability is regarded as unattractive by most rational observers and that there is mileage in ‘enlightening’ us that black women who happen to be landmine amputees are beautiful.

    However, I wonder how Dr Chapman would respond to the notion that women, or men, amputees or otherwise, enter such competitions of their own free will? Is she suggesting that some people are not capable of deciding whether or not they wish to be empowered, or what could or could not empower them, or indeed whether it matters to them whether or not they can benefit from an exploitative enterprise by some outsiders?

  2. Totally bizarre, like our world I might add.

    I fail to see the beauty in this: it’s just a distraction from the profitable and immoral arms industry.

  3. Just a few comments:

    In Cambodia, where the competition is now banned by the government, disability is regarded as unattractive by a large part of the population. Society considers them unable to marry and have children. Many are taught to limit their visibility in society in order to avoid shame and pity.

    Comments in the media here surrounding the competition, including from human rights and women’s rights activists, reflected 2 main stereotypes:

    1. Women with disabilities can’t be beautiful: non-disabled commentators expressed fear that the women ‘may pity themselves’ for taking part in the competition, and that a ‘miss competition’ implies beauty, which female landmine victims obviously can’t be.

    2. People with disabilities and especially women with disabilities are not capable to make their own decisions. Instead they need protection by others, who ‘know better’ (indeed the Ministry of Social Affairs in Cambodia banned the competition on grounds that ‘the honour and dignity’ of the women need to be protected). But surely these women can make up their own minds on the merits of taking part in the competition! But of course nobody of those commentators bothered to ask the opinions of the women themselves.

    Though I am not a fan in general of Miss-Competitions, I have seen the photo’s of the Cambodian women taking part in the competition and they show proud, self-confident and absolutely beautiful women, and I am very sad that they are now denied the right to show themselves in this manner.

  4. […] contribution that women can make to society. Dr. Jean Chapman who was a guest writer on the blog politicalminefields.com made an interesting observation echoing the main critiques against the show. She pointed out that […]

  5. Hi there,

    I am a Canadian north american Indian. I saw saw Miss Landmine documentry this afternoon and had to give my remarks.

    I am so very impressed with this documentry in attempting to bring out the postive light on Cambodia’s disabled.

    First of all I am a Amputee woman born without hands, due to a car accident, eventually had to have my feet amputated.

    Our north American disabled Indians may not be in the same political arena, however we struggle with quite the same similarities of low self-estem, employment issues. In general, we are the Black eye of Canada.

    I am in the process of writing my story in order to open some doors and pave the way for other north american Indians to write thier postive story.

    I do many community based Aboriginal (north american) Indian events to bring the awarness of the group that I am of.

    I have a Web page that I am going to be redoing in January 2012.
    Web page: http://www.rainbowofabilities.com

    I applaud the cause of Miss Landmine documentry.

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