As a young girl growing up in Malawi, I once wore trousers to church. They were a brand new pair purchased on my father’s recent trip abroad. A few minutes into the service, I heard sniggering behind me growing louder and more annoying by the minute. Turning around, I cast dirty looks at the two boys sitting behind me. They couldn’t be laughing at me? I turned around again. They were now pointing mockingly at me. Bewildered and visibly upset, I poured out my confusion and embarrassment as soon as I got home. My grandmother listened quietly then calmly explained to me, “They were laughing because you’re wearing trousers.”
It’s been nearly a month since women in Malawi were subject to the embarrassment of being undressed in public due to their “improper” and “indecent” clothing. The serious rampage of Malawi’s busiest towns and cities by gangs of riotous male youth fuelled a national harassment campaign aimed at women. In what has been described by onlookers as “total disorder” in Malawi’s town centers, the events demonstrated the oppressive nature of gender roles in the sub-Saharan country. An apparent bid to fight immorality, the public shaming of women who chose to wear pants, leggings, shorts and mini-skirts on that day shook the imagination of Malawians and of the world.
Following the global explosion of SlutWalk last year and the public outcry of women who refuse to accept that there is a causal link between sexual harassment and a woman’s personal choice of clothing, it seems ridiculous bordering on psychotic that anyone could rationalize the recent torment imposed on Malawi’s female population.
In a bid to “bring back sanity among women,” these events resemble the actions of Malawi’s post-independence Banda regime, which banned women from wearing trousers, shorts and mini-skirts. In fact, the recent attacks appeared to be a momentary revival of the Decency in Dress Act of 1973 which flourished during the autocratic Banda regime and dictated what women could and could not wear. In true right-wing fashion, women sporting anything other than draping and loose-fitting floor-length skirts and dresses were shunned as sell-outs to western cultural brainwashing.
The alignment of conservative approaches to fashion with Malawian national culture continues to pose a key challenge for women’s rights activists in the country. Not only is choice of clothing used against women as a potential source of immorality and thus a valid factor behind sexual assault, but it is also used to promote national values centered on ‘Malawian-ness.’ In attempts to enforce Malawian culture on women, one agitator claimed that President Mutharika had sent them to “clean the streets of women dressed inappropriately.” Another left this menacing message: “This is an exercise to teach women how to dress.”
Although the new constitution permits women to ditch once-obligatory ankle-length dresses for a pair of pants, it seems that the old disapproval of ‘liberal’ western fashions has once more invaded Malawian society. But did it ever leave?
I first came across the story during one of my regular commutes across London. With eyes fixed on my smartphone, I shut out the hustle and bustle of commuters and found my thoughts wandering into Malawi. I was wearing sheer tights and my favourite pair of high-waist daisy dukes, an outfit that could never see the light of day in my native country. What’s worse is that had I been in Malawi that day, I would have been attacked and publicly undressed, or worse.
Though the bizarre nature of the story resembled a sick and twisted nightmare, I was reminded of the bleak reality of the situation, and of what it means to have my culture thrown at me every time I opt for “indecent” clothing. The looks of disapproval that my shorts and skirts might receive from the older Malawian generation are a stark reminder that my choice of clothing is a stain on my culture. Skirts above the knee, shorts that expose my thighs, strapless dresses that bare my arms and back and bathing suits that aren’t accompanied with baggy T-shirts and wraps – they have all, at one point, been used to remind me that I am living on the outskirts of a culture which seeks to preserve its “non-western” quality.
For example, that scorching hot day a few summers ago (I remember it well as there aren’t many in England), when I argued for the right to wear shorts because it was “bloody boiling” outside, I looked on in horror at the jeans my mother had picked to replace my “too short” shorts (they were 5cm above my knees- I checked), convinced I would melt right into the thick, heavy garment (slight exaggeration for dramatic effect). You see, we have this argument every year. My culture always wins.
Then I think back to that scene from “Sex and City 2” when the women of Abu Dhabi lift their traditional garb to reveal stylish designer clothing fresh off the pages of Vogue to Carrie and the girls, thus signaling the similarities, rather than the differences, between women across the globe. The message was clear. Anyone who thought this was about fashion missed the point. Women are connected by more than just a killer pair of heels or a well-fitting dress. It is the immorality attached to our bodies and the strict boundaries placed on our freedom of expression that remind us that, although we’re dotted around the world, we’re essentially riding on the same train, headed for the same destination.
Violence and discrimination towards women is a key problem that the nation faces and it has a lot less to do with indecent clothing than these male youths would have us believe. On the contrary, demeaning perceptions and the devaluation of women are clearly deeply rooted within society. Just today, Malawi’s leading news source demonstrated the alarming connection between the sexual abuse of school girls (and indeed that of the wider female population) with the disproportionate levels of HIV among women in the country. So although the worrying situation in Malawi may have seemed light years away to most, the happenings of a different universe altogether, I came to the sudden realization that this crazy rampage on the streets of Malawi was my own daily struggle, thousands of miles away.
Vinjeru Mkandawire is an aspiring journalist who writes for several publications on women’s issues, African affairs, and student politics. She founded the blog That African Kid in 2010 and is a moderator of the long-running forum Malawi Talk. Born in Malawi, she has lived in Zambia, Swaziland, and now the UK. This is Vinjeru’s first post for Fem2.0. You can find her on twitter at @VivaLaVinn.