THIS year’s Miss World contest appears to be under threat after a number of contestants announced they were pulling out in support of a village woman who has been sentenced to death for adultery in the host nation, Nigeria.
The newly crowned Miss Switzerland is the latest contestant to withdraw from the final after an Islamic court in rural Nigeria, operating under strict sharia law, condemned a 30-year-old woman to death by stoning after she gave birth to her daughter outside marriage.
Nadine Vinzens, 19, said: "If I went there, that would be like supporting the whole thing. It’s frightening what’s done to women there. The human rights situation is very poor."
Participants from France, Belgium, Norway, the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Togo have already announced their withdrawal from the Miss World final, due to be held on 30 November, in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Miss World and associated pageants have styled themselves moral champions and have previously stripped titles from winners who have later been found to be single mothers. Among them Helen Morgan, who won the title as Miss UK, in 1974.
Organisers are racing against time to save the event, after a dozen nations said they had still to decide on whether to send a representative.
Human rights organisations and the European Parliament have called on the 100 contestants to ditch the traditional image of swimwear and evening gowns as a mark of solidarity with the condemned mother.
Last month, an Islamic court in northern Nigeria rejected Amina Lawal’s appeal against her conviction and sentence.
She had given birth to a daughter more than nine months after divorcing her husband, and the public execution is scheduled to be carried out in 2004, after she finishes weaning the baby.
She is currently appealing against the ruling, but the execution by stoning would be the first in Nigeria since a dozen northern states adopted Islamic law in 1999.
Under the doctrine, men are allowed several wives. Human rights organisations are appalled by the fact that women can be convicted of adultery because they are unable to hide their pregnancy.
Philandering males can be tried only if four witnesses testify to having witnessed the sexual act.
Several governments, along with Amnesty International, have urged President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration to intervene, but the leader has been accused of appeasing northern politicians for electoral reasons.
Last month, he refused to accept the sentence would be carried out, commenting: "I don’t think what is going on will lead to her death.
"Indeed, if it does, which I very much doubt, I will weep for myself, I will weep for Amina and I will weep for Nigeria," the .president added.
Ms Lawal is not the first victim of the sharia courts.
Safiya Husaini spent six months under threat of death, until her sentence for adultery was overturned by a higher court in March.
The man with whom she conceived a daughter already had two wives. Although he confessed to police to having sex with Ms Husaini, the court allowed him to retract his confession and set him free.
Such stories have incensed this year’s beauty queens, who wish to see the current Miss World, Nigerian Agbani Darego, dethroned as part of their campaign against the draconian punishments.
Miss Togo, Sandrine Agbopke, declared: "All of society and the authorities should rise up to end this revolting practice."
Before the current threat to the competition, the Nigerian National Council For Muslim Youth had threatened to disrupt the 52nd Miss World because of its "immorality".
Although its impact in Britain has diminished since the BBC dropped the show in 1988, the contest is still seen on Channel 5, and in 140 countries around the world. However, some commentators have speculated that the fight to save Ms Lawal may turn the once-pilloried pageant into a platform for women’s issues.
The contestants’ high-profile intervention has boosted the fight to save the unmarried mother, with Amnesty International saying it has received an "unprecedented" response to its campaign to have the sentence overturned.
Julia Morley, a spokeswoman for Miss World, said she had been in discussions with Nigerian ministers to seek assurances that the plight of Ms Lawal is being addressed. She said: "Clearly, we are all appalled that such an action might take place, as are the vast majority of the Nigerian people. This is a situation that we have never come across before."
And she added: "We are monitoring the situation carefully and are confident that justice will prevail."