BOSTON - Let's just say that the Miss World organization is a little weak on the concept of democracy. Maybe that's what happens when you work with beauty queens for 52 years. You become a monarchist.
For openers, they're weak on voting. For the first time, the beauty pageanteers are expanding the electorate from a handful of judges. This year, ordinary voters will account for half the points. But only people with mobile phones will be able to vote. And they'll be allowed to vote as many times as they like. Where is Jimmy Carter when you need him?
More important, the Miss Worlders are also weak on the concept of human rights. Not to mention freedom of expression.
A new Miss World will be crowned Saturday with high heels, tears and a stated desire for "world peace" before an expected international TV audience of 1.5 billion people. Before that happens, however, allow me to walk, flat-heeled and fully clothed, through the controversy that has tripped up this contest.
First we go to Nigeria, the original site for this pageant. Nigeria is also the homeland of Amina Lawal, a 31-year-old mother sentenced by an Islamic court to be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock.
After a small protest, a handful of dropouts and lukewarm government assurances, our friends at Miss World decided the show must go on. While the contestants were to be crowned for their sex, the defendant would remain condemned for hers. Nice symmetry.
Then we go to Isioma Daniel, a smarty-pants newspaper columnist - a species with which I am very familiar. In the run-up to the finals, this Nigerian wrote a response to Muslim leaders opposed to the pageant. WWMD? she asked. What Would Muhammad Do? She concluded, "In all honesty, he would have probably chosen a wife from one of them."
This turned out to be the last straw - or first match - that set off a horrifying series of religious riots, ending in almost 200 deaths and thousands of injuries. The Muslims also put a fatwa, or death sentence, on the head of the journalist, who fled the country.
What did the Miss World folks do then, besides skedaddle out of Nigeria themselves with all their baggage? Did they express horror at such madness stemming from a beauty pageant? Condemn religious wars? Stand up for "world peace"? Rush to the defense of the free press?
In fact, they issued a release saying they were "shocked and deeply saddened by the appalling comments ... that led to such a tragic loss of life."
By now, we're all aware of an odd split in the world. The same bathing beauties who are far too sexually liberated in the eyes of Islamic traditionalists are far too retro in the eyes of contemporary feminists.
When the shaken Miss World contestants hurriedly exited to London, the British press used the occasion to bash both sides, suggesting a prudish alliance between feminists and fundamentalists. One Western journalist went so far as to say that the beauty contest was the real sign of progress: "That she can be objectified by the leering gaze of 16-year-old boys the world over is nothing short of wonderful."
Well, I am full of wonder too. Full of wonder at how women's bodies - in burqa or bikini, hidden or exposed - remain so central to cultural arguments.
The current Miss World debacle suggests that the West has had more success exporting its images than its ideals. Every pageant - on international TV or in a Lithuanian jail - has the same single standard of beauty: lean, lanky and Western. But the world has very different standards for unmarried mothers or mouthy journalists.
The globalization of female beauty has leapt far ahead of the globalization of human rights. We leer global, but we persecute local.
Here are the contenders for my Miss World:
A mother who may yet be stoned for adultery.
A journalist still in hiding for a risky turn of phrase.
And 93 young women who pour tomato juice on their hair.
Anyone have a mobile phone?
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.