As a little girl in Nigeria I was constantly being told that “proper” girls did not wear short skirts, tight clothes, or tops showing their midriff. While I was being educated on the appropriate attire for a “decent” girl, adults were also concerned by my obsession with trousers. Did I think I was a boy? This obviously confused me. If I was not supposed to wear short skirts or tight clothes because it was not proper, and I was not supposed to wear trousers because I was not a boy, what then was I supposed to wear? I was not the only female in my family who had to follow these rules of decent dressing. In the northern part of Nigeria in the mid-1980s, my mother was called names and referred to as a man when she went to the market in trousers. Did she not know the appropriate attire for women? It’s been nearly 30 years since that incident in the market where my mother was verbally abused for her choice of attire but it seems that in 2012, the way women choose to dress is still an issue in many African countries.
Policing Women’s Dress
In her chapter “Nudity and morality: legislating women’s bodies and dress in Nigeria,” published in African Sexualities: A Reader, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf writes:
“In recent years, women’s fashion or sartorical practices have become the site for pernicious policing and debates about social and moral decay in Africa generally and Nigeria in particular. This has resulted in calls for intervention and the imposition of sanctions within Nigeria’s higher education institutions by religious organisations, as well as by media and government agencies. Some universities have banned the wearing of trousers, the bearing of midriffs, spaghetti tops and any item of clothing that reveals female flesh. Young women’s fashion choices are seen not only as a distraction to male students, but as a provocation of male lecturers. The argument is that revealing attire has made sexual violation and harassment a marked feature of university life in Nigeria and therefore the only way to curb this is to impose a strict dress code on female students.”
In various African countries, there are widespread incidents of women being taunted, attacked, publicly stripped, and in extreme cases sexually abused for wearing inappropriate items of clothing. At the beginning of the year, women in Lilongwe, Malawi were groped and stripped by groups of male street vendors if they were found wearing trousers or short skirts. In December, two women were assaulted at a taxi rank in Johannesburg for wearing mini-skirts. A similar incident happened in 2008 in South Africa when a young woman at a taxi rank had her clothes ripped off by taxi drivers and hawkers for showing too much skin. These are not isolated incidents; similar attacks on women for dressing “indecently” and “inappropriately” have been found in Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Many African Governments also police women’s dress, usually in the name of preventing violence and moral decay. Miniskirts were banned in several African countries in the late 1960s and 1970s, including Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, while in Zambia, skirts had to be at least three inches below the knee. Until 1994, women in Malawi were banned from wearing trousers and miniskirts (as well as lipstick and painted fingernails) under the 30-year dictatorship of President Hastings Banda.
In 2008, there were attempts again to ban miniskirts in Uganda “because women wearing them distract drivers and cause traffic accidents.” Also in 2008, Nigerian politicians tried to control what women wore with the “Indecent Dressing Bill.” “The Bill for an Act to Prohibit and Punish Public Nudity, Sexual Harassment and Other Related Offences in Nigeria” aimed to reduce sexual violations and alleged immorality caused by women’s indecent clothing. This year, a dress code policy was introduced at the University of Bea in Cameroon, where campus security have the authority to send “indecently” dressed students, usually female students, home to change their clothes.
Again and again, policy makers and male citizens (the taxi drivers in South Africa, the male street vendors in Malawi, the university students on many African campuses) police women’s dress to ensure they dress like “decent” African women.
The “Indecent” Miniskirt
The miniskirt, in particular, is seen as a sign of the moral decay of women, and hence the moral decay of society (the trouser is another culprit, due to its ability to blur gender boundaries). Women are often seen as the guardians and transmitters of cultural traditions. So those women that wear miniskirts are seen as embracing an “unAfrican” identity. By embracing an “unAfrican” identity, they are not only setting a bad example to younger girls, but also spoiling the morality of the nation by their choice of “indecent” clothing. Additionally, by wearing a miniskirt, women are showing that they are sexually available. No respectable, moral African woman would wear such “indecent” clothes.
On one hand the miniskirt is seen as an “indecent” piece of clothing, which leads to unwanted male attention, and in the extreme cases attack from “concerned” citizens to uphold the morality of the nation. On the other hand, the miniskirt is used as a sign of protest against gendered violence. In Malawi and South Africa women have used the miniskirt in protests to say that wearing it doesn’t make them whores and does not give society license to attack them. In this vein, the miniskirt becomes a symbol saying that women have the right to wear what they want without fear of attack. Even my mother and I have resisted in our own little way to reclaim our right to wear what we want. She still wore her trousers; I never gave in when I was told trousers were for boys, and once in a while I do wear a short skirt or dress. I never really thought much about it, but it is my way of saying, “I am not what I wear.”
During these protests women still face being attacked. This was the case in Zimbabwe when over 500 male students threatened the female students — who wore shorts and miniskirt to protest against the attack of a Zimbabwean model — with violence and called them prostitutes. Similarly, when women wearing shorts and miniskirts took to the streets in Johannesburg in 2008 to also protest against assaults on miniskirt-wearers, the male taxi drivers called them prostitutes.
Women’s Right to Choose Their Dress, Free of Coercion
Women’s rights to choose their dress should not be seen as secondary to issues like domestic violence and sexual abuse, for example, because it is in some way connected to these forms of gender oppression. Instead, policing women’s dress should be seen for what it really is – another means of controlling women’s bodies through oppression. By saying what is and isn’t suitable clothing for women, notions about what it means to be a “decent” woman are being conveyed. When women are attacked for not dressing “appropriately,” and then blamed for these so-called acts of morality, this only strengthens the belief that policing women’s dress is the right thing to do. As Amnesty International rightly puts it:
“The way people dress can be an important expression of their religious, cultural or personal identity or beliefs. As a general rule, the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression entail that all people should be free to choose what — and what not — to wear.”
Women, therefore, should have the right to wear what they choose — be it traditional African attire, a miniskirt or trousers — free of coercion.