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Immodest dressers and desecraters

One of the social practices most dubiously attributed to the West is immodest female dressing. It has provoked legislative action, assault on women, and intense debates in the African press. The prevailing view that it is Western is countered by traditional African practices. Yet, the debate goes on.

In Nigeria, there has been a number of attempts at the state and federal levels to legislate a code of dressing. The two most notable attempts in the national legislature to curb “indecent dressing” were bills introduced in 2004 and 2008.

Ironically, both bills were introduced by legislators from the more “Westernized” South, rather than the more conservative Muslim North. And the 2008 bill was introduced by a female legislator. Both bills were vigorously debated before being rejected. It was not for a lack of concern about immodest dressing by Nigeria’s young women, but because it was too complicated a matter to legislate on by a secular government.

A major criticism of the bills was that they were intended to control women.

“That the machinery of governance can be put into use in such ultimately flimsy and unimportant issues is a further indication of a systemic backing for sexual harassment, misogyny and the whole gamut,” Jibril Sado, an independent blogger, wrote in a letter to the editor (Punch, December 2, 2014). “Otherwise, pray, tell how to adjudge a man’s dress as decent or indecent?” Instead of banning provocative dresses, Sado would rather that the Muslim hijab and burqa be banned for security reasons.

Nothing more widely sparked a debate on the matter of immodest dressing than the roughing up of a Kenyan woman in downtown Nairobi in November 2014. It sparked a debate not just in Kenyan papers, but in the broader African press. A columnist in Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, on November 12 condemned the act and warned the perpetrators not to impose their morality on others.

The article generated 186 posts, the vast majority of which expressed similar outrage.

However, there were also some posts that put the blame on the molested women and blamed their fashion style on Western values. One post read: “While no one has the right [to] strip a person in the streets, this incident speaks volumes about the levels of indecency among our young women who copy Western dress culture. Let our women mind their dressing period.”

Two writers pointed to the irony of blaming skimpy clothing on Western values. “So my mother in 1960 when she was wearing a mini dress, block shoes and an afro she was indecent?” one posted. “So when my grannie was wearing only loincloth she was being immoral? ... give us a break.”

Excerpting from a preceding post, another reader added: “‘It’s the norm of Africans to dress decently.’ REALLY? So Rendille and Sam-buru gals don’t dress decently because they walk around bare-chested in their ‘hoods?” The reference is to two tradition-bound ethnic groups in two northern Kenyan villages.

The debate in Kenya was joined by other Africans. The popular Nigerian daily The Punch, for example, ran three articles on the topic in a span of 27 days in November and December 2014. The first was a column on November 27 titled “How to treat a naked woman.” In it, columnist Abimbola Adelakun chided the Kenyan harassers and other like-minded people for misguided notions of African values and a lack of self-control.

“It never fails to amuse how some folk paralyse themselves with nostalgia of an Africa that probably never existed,” Adelakun writes. “If a woman showed ‘skin’ in her self-presentation, a rabble of pontificates scream it is un African forgetting that once upon a time, their African ancestors lived in unashamed Garden of Eden nakedness.”

Adelakun argued that like Adam and Eve in the Biblical narrative, earlier Africans did not feel shame for being naked because they had not been so socially conditioned. Echoing the Kenyans, she wrote that modesty in dressing is a Victorian value that was introduced to Africa as one of the colonial instruments of conditioning the colonized.

Adelakun then took the argument from the ethno-cultural to the feminist sphere. “There is something about realising that you can be imprisoned by the power of the passion between your own legs that could turn you into a bully,” she writes.

For, if someone’s sexual expression does not have power over you, you would not fight to repress it. Those Kenyan men who did not hesitate to strip a woman naked did so because her dress choices activated their loins; and took over their senses.

Five days later, Jibril Sado wrote what was titled “a rejoinder,” though it was actually a concurrence. It stressed the broader issue of the status of women. “The problem with issues like the harassment of the Kenyan woman is that many social systems, especially in Africa and the Arab world, create an enabling environment for such acts to thrive,” Sado writes. “Increasingly, in these societies, the hypocritical patriarchy and other puritans seem to be trying to convince everyone that somehow there is something wrong with being a woman; that to be a woman is to be sub-human in some instances.”

About three weeks later, on December 23, The Punch carried yet another rejoinder and this time it was decidedly a rejoinder. Without condoning the undressing of women for wearing skimpy dresses, Bunmi Aroyewun questioned the appropriateness of such attires and the wisdom in wearing them. She argued that as a matter of self-respect, a woman should not advertise herself as a sexual object or encourage such objectification.

“For crying out loud, why are women usually the object often depicted as representing seduction and sexual themes?” Aroyewun writes.

Why do we allow ourselves to be subjugated by the society by dressing and dancing dishonourably on TV when the men dress corporately even at beaches? Why do we use ourselves as sexual appeal for men who eventually go away with all the benefits and the profits of the promos?

For answers, Aroyewun points to “Western values”: “We seem to always want to emulate everything from the West without a reason to look back and sieve the grains from the chaff, the reverberation of which is ripping the society apart.”

Were there scientific polls in Africa on the matter, it would probably show that public opinion is overwhelmingly on Aroyewun’s side. But that has not dissuaded young African women. Immodest attires remain commonplace from Nairobi to Lagos to Johannesburg.

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