February 24th 2012
The push to police the way that women dress continues across Africa on the pretext that it causes sexual harassment and violence against women. What really underlies this censorship of women’s expression? asks Bibi Bakare-Yusuf.
Women’s dressing has become the site for pernicious policing and debates about social and moral decay in Africa, with calls for intervention within Nigeria’s higher education institutions, by religious organisations, and the media. Over the past decade, some universities have banned the wearing of trousers and any ‘revealing’ clothes by young women because they are seen as a distraction to male students and lecturers. The argument is that revealing attire has made sexual violation and harassment a marked feature of university life in Nigeria, and therefore imposing a strict dress code on female students is the only way to stop it.
In 2007 the General Overseer (GO) Adeboye of The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), the largest Pentecostal church in the country, banned the wearing of trousers for his female church members. The GO’s proscription coincided with the arrest by Lagos State Police of women wearing trousers and ‘skimpy’ clothes, which they claimed was aimed at discouraging vice in the city. Most of the women were arrested on allegations of ‘indecent dressing’ or ‘wandering’, a term from a colonial law that was repealed more than a decade ago.
The pinnacle of attempts to regulate the way Nigerians dress came in 2008, when Nigerian Senator Eme Ufot Ekaette, the female Chair of the Senate Committee on Women and Youth Affairs, presented a Bill titled “A Bill for an Act to prohibit and punish public nudity, sexual intimidation and other related offences in Nigeria” – referred to in popular debates as “The Indecent Dressing Bill”. The Bill’s aim was to reduce the apparent sexual violation and immorality occasioned by women’s clothing. In the Bill, public nudity is defined as a “state of indecent dressing which expose in the public or in the open the breast, belly, waist and lap of a female above the age of 14 years, as well as any part of the body from two inches below the shoulders downwards to the knee”. The subsequent sections of the Bill then define punishments, which include a prison sentence of three months for public nudity, and three years for sexual intimidation. In prescribing enforcement the Bill identifies “the role of religious bodies in moral rejuvenation”, proposing active efforts by government bodies to support this.
Senator Ekaette’s Bill was heavily critiqued by Nigeria women’s rights activists such as Iheoma Obibi and Blessing Oparaocha, and after a public hearing (a record of which was never circulated) the Bill itself was eventually swept under the carpet without a clear public decision from the Nigerian Senate. Needless to say, moves to police women’s dress – purportedly in the name of preventing violence – are continuing in many African countries. A recent example is a dress code policy introduced at the University of Bea in Cameroon, where campus police have been given powers to send students- primarily women- home on the basis that they are ‘inappropriately’ dressed. This widespread denunciation of women’s fashion deserves serious debate. It is critical to interrogate the text of Senator Ekatte’s Bill and her written defense to the Nigerian Senate and to examine her problematic universalising and heteronormative assumptions.
In reality, the state’s perennial concern for women’s dress in Africa is not about supporting women’s power of choice and autonomy. It is about controlling women’s bodies. Society so often projects its anxieties about broader changes onto women’s bodies. In turn, women’s bodies also then become the site for both the resolution and restitution of social insecurities, and existential anxieties.
Forced unity in the face of diversity?
In justifying the Bill, Senator Ekaette argued that given what she sees as a collapse in morals, a return to God is necessarily the touchstone for moral and spiritual rebirth. For the Senator, not legislating against public lewdness would result in the complete annihilation of what she describes as “our age-long values of very high morals, and we would be forced to all wear iron jeans trousers with padlocked belts to avoid being raped or sexually assaulted. God forbid!”
Senator Ekaette’s appeal to morality proffered both by God and the law means that she believes it is possible to regulate and discipline an individual’s liberty in order to prevent immoral behaviour. However, the fact that religion and state are not separated in the 1999 Constitution does not erase the reality of Nigeria’s socio-ethnic complexity, and the rural-urban matrix with its myriad conceptions of dress and nudity, morality and immorality. Indeed, whilst some Nigerian Pentecostal groups attempt to restrict the wearing of trousers for women because of the fear of blurred gender boundaries, among Muslims, the wearing of trousers by women fits into their doctrinal code to cover the flesh. Such diverse positions on a single item of clothing contests the Senator’s claim that ‘all our religions forbid public lewdness, public nudity or public nakedness’ (2008: 4). This also underscores the fact that in a pluralised society like Nigeria, the Senator’s desire for a unified legal moralism is already doomed and unworkable.
Senator Ekeatte assumes that the social fabric and judicial system of a society must be grounded in a universally shared morality that can be adhered to across time and space. It does not occur to her that the law could be grounded in a secular principle of human rights or ethics which does not require an underlying moral consensus across social difference. Many legal theorists would agree that the use of morality in criminal law has no traction in a modern legal system, let alone in a plural society like Nigeria.
Historically and currently, minimal clothing or exposure of the torso is a common feature amongst a diverse group of Nigerians, especially in the rural areas. If the Bill had passed, large communities would have been forced to re-adjust their socio-cultural perspective to one which sexualises states of nudity or semi-nudity. By attempting to legislate against certain forms of women’s dressing in order to preserve a pristine Nigerian cultural and moral universe, the Senator betrays her ignorance about the complexity and diversity of norms about the body and dress in Nigeria. Her position is indebted more to the two colonizing religions – Islam and Christianity – with their anxiety over and fear of the (female) body, than the African culture she claims to represent. The injunction to cover up by the Senator assumed that veiling or being fully clothed would eliminate sexual misdemeanour. Indeed, she alluded to this in a radio interview on the BBC’s African Have Your Say program, when she said that covered women are unlikely to be raped. Through the work of feminist and gender activists the world over, we know that whether women are clothed or unclothed does not prevent sexual intimidation or violation.
Masking the realities of expression and violation
By investing women’s fashion choice with sexual meaning it appears to be a matter of logic that regulation should follow in order to protect women from the inevitable masculine desire and terror that is provoked by exposed flesh. Such a position tacitly reaffirms the normative power of heterosexuality as the only legally, theologically and culturally legitimate form of sexuality. The possibility of women dressing for themselves, or directed at non-heterosexual desire is totally erased. Yet, the image of heterosexual desire offered here is one of potential threat and abusive power relations, from which women must both subscribe to and be protected from. There is no suggestion in the Bill that male desire itself should be circumscribed, or held accountable (either morally, or within the law).
What the Bill fails to address is women’s vulnerability to sexual violation and harassment in the context of social and economic inequality. Whether as students, as graduates or as workers, women are positioned as economically vulnerable and dependent on the sanction of men. It is in the context of this social pressure that we see processes by which the flesh is commodified and objectified. With few options available, many women are forced to face one of three alternatives: destitution, dependency upon the favours of men, or to offer their bodies for transaction via the various forms of prostitution available to young women. It is in this context that Senator Ekaette’s Bill about sexual intimidation should be properly framed. Rather than a sign of moral degeneracy, the transactional use of the body by young women is a response to the huge social strain and inequality whereby competition for jobs, and ultimately, financial stability, requires and almost demands the commodification of female flesh.
The three points the Senator’s texts and pronouncements raise – heterosexual over-determination of the reasons why women dress the way they do; an emphasis on regulation and control of women’s dress; and the refusal to recognise the economic context within which Nigerian women’s vulnerability is situated – all point to a patriarchal model of heterosexuality, where women’s relations with men are over-determined and controlled solely by men. The possibility of women dressing as a form of agency outside of a male predatory and regulatory framework is nullified. That young women might relate to their body and sexuality in a non-abusive or non-violating way is utterly masked by Ekaette’s moralistic stance and logic of victimhood. The fact that women’s fashion choice could also be a site of conscious erotic play that is not channelled towards men is completely elided and replaced by a fearful model of heterosexuality, within which women’s comportment must at all times be contained.
In this context women, as the embodiment of patriarchal, economic vulnerability and dependency, are also blamed as the source of moral degeneracy. It might seem doubly cruel that women under conditions of extreme social strain are pressurised into commodifying their own bodies, and then blamed as the source of provocation. It is also interesting to witness such extreme hetero-normativity issuing forth from a woman. It is often the case that the most insidious forms of power in society operate via the silent internalisation of its strictures by the victims themselves.
This article stems from “Nudity and Morality: Legislating Women’s Bodies and Dress in Nigeria” published in African Sexualities: A Reader (Pambazuka Press, 2011).
Originally published by Open Democracy