My dress, My choice protest sparks a lot of questions
Jan 21, 2015
Last week, hundreds of angry women marched through the streets of Nairobi, Kenya in protest against the harsh treatment of a woman who was said to have worn a miniskirt on 7th November this year. According to reports, the woman was stripped naked and the clip went viral online and thus caused for the anger among protesters; most of whom wore miniskirts and midi dress calling for the men specifically who have committed the crime against the woman at a bus stop to strip them too. Kenyan’s also launched an online protest; #MydressMychoice.
This protest witnessed an anti-protest by a group of men calling on women to dress appropriately. But what constitute appropriate dress code for the African woman? Why is it acceptable to dress in a particular way at a particular place and unacceptable in another?
The protest further sparks a debate on gender related dress code in Africa. How is African women's dress code fashioned? Who fashion it; the male folks or the women themselves? The way women dress has a lot to do with their taste for fashion or their cultural or religious beliefs. In other circumstances women dress just to get the feel good factor. And the ideology that women who wear miniskirts dress to attract men must be extricated from the sick brains that have coined that idea in the first place.
Traditionally and since the days of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, the African woman has learnt to cover herself up in public spheres except for certain traditional ceremonies that demands otherwise. It is common to see women in traditional attires that cover them from head to toe. The arrival of religions such as Christianity and Islam that demand for modesty helped in so many ways to shape the way the African woman dress particularly so for special occasions. Colonialism introduced western fashion to the African woman. Today the wearing of the hijab or burqa and specially embroidered Western or middle eastern attires are very common among Africans, with some even replacing their traditional African attires for occasions like wedding with their alien replacements.
Until recently, there have been very few African women designers. The African fashion sphere has been dominated by men. Thanks to education and modernization. Today’s African women’s taste for fashion is increasingly being championed by women themselves. This is evidence in the increasing number of African female fashion designers. This fact is further shaping the way the African woman view herself as a serious contender in her highly patriarchal society.
The media has also contributed in molding African women’s taste for fashion. Western fashion that portrays women as sassy, sexy and a partner to their men folks as seen in movies in the 60s, 70s and 80s also greatly influenced African women’s taste for dress. Women want to be seen as partners and not subordinates.
Regardless of what our male folks think, our taste for fashion thus sends a message to our male counterparts as that is how we want to be represented. The message hailing from this taste vary from person to person but what is clear is that the African woman wants to be seen as the strong, reliant and talented partner in the development of her society and wearing a miniskirt must not lead to prejudice or to such a traumatic attack.
Thankfully, the protest makes someone like me breathes a sigh of relief. Democracy and human rights is gradually giving room for civilized protest like #MydressMychoice which could have been impossible before now. The fact that these very strong women were allowed by the authority to voice out their grievances signal a new positive change for women’s equality in Africa.
However, what I find very hypocritical in the whole assault saga is that If at all and according to her attackers, her dress code seems ‘inappropriate’, how does stripping her helps to reverse the inappropriateness of her appearance. In real sense, her attackers’ action only helps to endorse what they are claiming to condemn. What an irony!
This act by the group of men does not only violates the woman’s right to dress but is also a serious act of violence against women that is increasingly being replicated in our virtual space. Even though the video of the stripping of the woman has been deleted on youtube, Al Jazeera described the video as ‘reportedly taken at a bus stop, the woman is seen surrounded by men who strip her naked and assault her for allegedly dressing improperly’. What does that says about the African society and Africans?
Assaults happen everywhere and the absence of a complaint by the victim does not exonerate the fact that a crime was committed. There is a high probability that the victim has debunked the idea of making a complaints for fear of further emotional and psychological violence that will ensue.
It is common for victims of violence like such to be treated like the actual perpetrators. Questions like ‘why did you decide to dress like that’ and others are normally posed to victims by the same authorities that are meant to protect them. As a result of such foreseen humiliation and intimidations, victims usually decide to bury their sorrow.
The attack also begs the question of how is our allegiance to our culture help shaping the way we dress. Why should this bother men? Is this the first time women's dress code is coming to focus? What about traditional ceremonies that urge young girls to display their breasts to the public? Is that not offensive too? Traditional ceremonies like the bondo society in Sierra Leone and similar ones in other parts of the continent allow for women whom have reached puberty to display their bare breasts and in other circumstances the buttocks covering only the genitalia. How is that different from wearing a miniskirt that barely expose one’s thighs, knees and feet?
Additionally, there are portraits and other art-works that portrays the African woman as a naked being, displaying her body to the whole wide world. Especially so in traditional settings.
Nudity in any form, space, shape or size is still nudity. And the kind of nudity of the native African woman in the rural areas as has been portrayed depicts a lot of meaning. It stems from her vulnerability and a controlled body by the men who represent power in the society. Her nudity also symbolizes failure by her society to give her a voice in her society. The African woman’s nudity also depicts a power controlled form of oppression. So why must the African woman not make a choice over what she wants to wear, how, when and where? I think men should stay off women’s choice of fashion and concentrate on theirs. Afterwards don’t some men go out almost naked too? Particularly so in scorching hot weather in Africa?
However, when a woman chooses to wear a miniskirt which is by far better than the kind of nudity displayed in traditional ceremonies and in rural settings, it is considered wrong. Why should the woman’s body be a bone of contention?
Apparently, the issue of violence against women is being exacerbated with the advent of cyberspace. It is increasingly becoming difficult for women to escape violence with the growing use of cyberspace; facebook, twitter and instagram. Despite the absence of face to face interactions, many African women are attacked and repressed in virtual space because they are transgressing the conventional representations still expected by society.
While this protest undoubtedly opens room for further investigations about gender and cultural norms regarding the dress code for African women, it also rings a bell as to the crucial role our virtual space occupies in our everyday life.