Leave our miniskirts alone,’’ screamed one of the posters held by hundreds of women in Johannesburg, South Africa defending the rights of women to wear miniskirts without harassment. The protest which was an outrage against a young woman who had her clothes torn off by hawkers and taxi drivers for showing too much skin is one in a gale of protests by women in defence of their fashion choices. But that was more than a year ago. Now fast forward to 2014. Miniskirt is grabbing the headlines again! The stylish fashion item loved by women has become the subject of legislation. Now it’s official. Miniskirts are illegal in Uganda and Lagos. I am not surprised about the controversial Uganda Miniskirt law now being challenged by the Amazons in that country. What does one expect of a country where its President, Yoweri Musevini, once denied the existence of HIV/AIDS?
This law banning miniskirts is typical. It re-echoes the regime of another brutal dictator, Idi-Amin, who once considered the miniskirt as a security risk! But that is in Uganda, a country where its leadership mirrors the hypocrisy of African leaders. Now if we pardon the eccentric Musevini, what does one make of Lagos reputed to be governed by a governor who we expect will know better than to endorse decisions that threaten the fashion choices of women in its workforce? Now let’s review the two miniskirts laws. In Lagos, out of the blues emerged a circular issued from Alausa pronouncing the Fatwa against the wearing of miniskirts. It was reported that the state government has banned all forms of dresses that expose breasts, curves and other sensitive parts of the female body, saying “they are indecent.” This was contained in a circular issued by the Head of Service to entire Ministries, Departments and Agencies. It was said that the decision was taken as a result of worsening cases of indecent dressing among the state government female public servants. The circular urged the state’s officials to immediately move against indecent dressing, mandating public servants to dress ‘’properly’’ and ‘’decently’’ to the office and official functions to portray the good image of the state government. The state government warned that it would begin to take drastic and punitive measures against recalcitrant public servants who flout the directive. The state government has also prescribed a new dress code for female workers.
In Uganda where the miniskirt law is ridiculous as it is draconian, the anti-pornography law states that women who go out wearing miniskirts could face jail term of 10 years or be fined as much as 10 million Ugandan shillings (£2,500) or jailed for up to 10 years, or both. The passage and ratification of the law banning miniskirts simply mean that criminal charges will be pressed against women of Uganda. In Lagos, female civil servants could be victimised.
Yet, comprehensive definition of what a “miniskirt” entails remains inadequate. Several questions were left unanswered: What length qualifies a skirt to be deemed as a mini? What shall become of traditional attire that at times leaves parts of the body uncovered? I am not suggesting women should expose their nudity in the name of wearing miniskirts.
However, blanket passage of a law that illegalised miniskirts targets women dress choice and gives the government security apparatus enormous powers to interpret what a miniskirt is. Such unregulated definition will lead to victimisation and harassment of women. The constitution doesn’t discriminate against people based on gender, religion and traditions which include varied dress codes. Traditionally speaking, Africans wore just a piece of cloth/skin that left a big portion of the body uncovered.. Why do African leaders leave the real issues to chase shadows? It is possible for the moralists among us to look at these laws and conclude that there is nothing wrong with them.
But there is everything wrong with a law that targets women dress choices and limits their freedom to live their lives the way they please. Why does the society assume that women cannot determine what is good for them? Why does the society believe women must dress and behave in a certain way? Why single out the female gender? Now my concern is with the mindset of those who propose such bizarre laws. When people find themselves in a position of authority, wake up one day and impose their values on the society using the instrument of their office, then the society should have cause to worry. These laws, in my own view, wrongly target women and stigmatise them. Laws such as the banning of miniskirt symbolically victimise and stereotype women.
It blames them even for crimes that are committed against them. We have often heard when women are blamed for rape. The argument is that women invite rape because they dress in certain way that men cannot resist. It is this blame the victim attitude that gives rise to the miniskirt law. The man who committed the offence is absolved. But we have heard such refrain before? We’ve heard it in courtrooms where women’s fashion choices have been used against them in sexual assault trials. Or in the workplace, where women’s attire is constantly scrutinised to make sure she doesn’t cause her male colleagues to be so utterly distracted that they are unable to focus on their work. The Alausa miniskirt law is based on such assumption. The fashion police, for example are really the gender police, making sure women dress in ways that make sure men feel comfortable. Nothing can be more dangerous than to use an object worn by women to criminalise the entire womenfolk.
Those countries that make laws limiting the freedom of women further dehumanise them. In extremely patriarchal and religious societies such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, women are the subject of sexist and retrogressive laws. Now to my question: If we blame the miniskirt for the degeneracy that has become pervasive in the society, what reason do we now give for the alarming incident of the rape of minors? Or do minors also dress to kill? Is women dress choice responsible for our under development? Both the law in Uganda and the circular banning the miniskirts in Alausa serve to achieve one aim: limit women’s freedom to dress and live their lives in a free and democratic society. Women know what is good for them. We should not legislate what they choose to wear.
Now I fear that women in Alausa will be the subject of victimisation because a certain ‘oga’ bans a certain dress. The Nigerian Police Force has for long harassed women because of vague laws that categorise how a woman should dress. How do they determine indecent dressing? What is decent to one may be offensive to another. A government that establishes and enforces trivial laws against its own people which include and are not limited to laws pertaining to dress code isn’t protecting “morality.” Rather, it is enhancing dictatorship. Leave the miniskirts alone please.
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