My dress, My Choice sparks a lot of questions

It's time. The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign starts on November 25, and goes until December 10, Human Rights Day. It's time to take action, loudly and visibly, in our homes, schools, work places, parliaments, and in our neighborhoods.

Below is Kandeh Mariama Seray's activism:

Last week, hundreds of women marched through the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. According to reports, protesters, most of whom wore miniskirts, called for the men who had physically assaulted a woman dressed in a mini-skirt at a bus station to strip them too.

Kenyans also launched an online protest:  #MydressMychoice

In turn, the protest galvanized a male group calling on women to dress appropriately.

But what constitutes “appropriate dress” for women? And just why is it “acceptable” to dress in a particular way at a particular place but unacceptable in another?

Nairobi street and online protest further sparked debate on gender-related dress across Africa. How is the African women's dress code fashioned? Who fashions it? Male folk or women themselves?

The way black African women dress has a lot to do with their taste for fashion or cultural or religious beliefs. Women, like men, dress for the feel-good factor. Undoubtedly, the spread of Christianity and Islam impacted dress, particularly so for special occasions. Colonialism also introduced new styles and fashion to societies in Africa. Today the wearing of the hijab or burqa and embroidered western or Middle Eastern attire are very common for occasions like weddings.

Thanks to information and education, fashion is increasingly being championed by women on the continent. The media has also contributed in molding trends. For example, fashion that portray women as sassy, sexy and a partner to their menfolk, as seen in western movies, influenced African women’s taste.  Women want to be seen as partners and not subordinates regardless of what male folk think. The message might 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 attack.

Thankfully, the protest makes someone like me breathe a sigh of relief. Democracy is giving room for protests like #MydressMychoice which could have been impossible before now. The fact that these women were allowed by the authorities to voice out their grievances signals change for equality in Africa.

Nonetheless, the assault of a woman in a miniskirt by a group of men not only violates the woman’s right but is a serious act of violence 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 African society and Africans? Why should this bother men?

What about traditional ceremonies that urge 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 women whom have reached puberty to display their breasts and, in other circumstances, the buttocks covering only the genitalia. How is that different from wearing a miniskirt that only exposes one’s thighs, knees and feet?

Nudity in any form, space, shape or size is still nudity.  And the kind of nudity of the African woman in rural areas as has been portrayed depicts a lot of meaning. It stems from her vulnerability and controlled body by the men who represent power in the society. Her nudity symbolizes failure by her society to give her a voice in her society. The African woman’s nudity depicts a form of oppression.

Don’t some men go out almost naked too? Particularly in scorching hot weather in Africa? So when a woman chooses to wear a miniskirt 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 Facebook, Twitter and Instagram…

While this protest undoubtedly opens room for further investigations about gender and cultural norms regarding the dress code for African women, it also raises a flag as to the crucial role our virtual space occupies in our everyday life.

There are many ways that you can take action. People from around the world have joined the Facebook event to #Orangeurhood in #16Days. 

Looking for something orange to wear and make your personal statement against violence?  Get a beautiful artisan bracelet in orange made by Kenyan artists:

The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, the only grant making mechanism at the UN that exclusively supports programmes to end violence against women and girls, has partnered with Soko. The proceeds will contribute to the economic empowerment of an underprivileged artisan community and, at the same time, support UN Trust Fund programmes to prevent violence against women around the world. Read more>


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