Accepted Paper:

'Be graceful, patient, ever prayerful': negotiating femininity, respect and the religious self in a Nigerian beauty pageant  


Juliet Gilbert (University of Birmingham)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how a Nigerian pageant, grounded in Pentecostal fervour, moulds emic conceptions of beauty and is used by young women as a ‘platform’ for success. Focusing on the emergence of new feminine subjectivities, the discussion highlights agency, resistance and the religious self.

Paper long abstract:

Beauty pageants in Nigeria have become highly popular spectacles, the crowned winners venerated for their beauty, success and ability to better society through charity. This paper focuses on the Carnival Calabar Queen pageant, highlighting how pageants, at the nexus of gender and the nation (cf. Cohen et al. 1996), are sites of social reproduction by creating feminine ideals. A divinely inspired initiative of a fervently Pentecostal First Lady, the pageant crowns an ambassador for young women's rights. Where the queen must have 'grace and beauty' and be 'ever prayerful', the discussion unravels emic conceptions of feminine beauty, religiosity and respectability. Yet, young women also use pageantry as a 'platform' for success, hoping to challenge the double bind of gender and generation they experience in the postcolony. The discussion pays particular attention to how young women, trying to overcome the insecurities of (urban) Nigerian life, make choices to negotiate individualism with community, and piety with patriarchy.

Ethnographically, this paper draws on the longue durée, situating beauty pageants in the region's past and present practices that mould feminine subjectivities. Contributing young women's experiences to recent literature on the temporalities of African youth (Honwana 2012), the paper's explicit focus on how new subjectivities form through action illuminates important themes regarding agency, resistance and notions of the religious self (cf. Mahmood 2005). In doing so, it furthers current analyses of Pentecostalism, seeking a more nuanced understanding of gender reconfiguration (cf. Mate 2002) and demonstrating how religious subjects can be formed outside of church institutions.

Panel P030
Innovation and continuity in the anthropology of gender and sexuality (Network for the Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality)