#MyDressMyChoice & the Contradictions of the “African Decency” Argument

November 26, 2014 § 4 Comments

Early last week, Kenyan women took to the streets under the banner: #MyDressMyChoice, to protest against the stripping naked of a woman in Nairobi. The men who stripped the woman did so under the claim that her miniskirt was “indecent” and contrary to the more “modest” African attire. Here are the contradictions and ironies inherent in trying to justify this crime with the argument that miniskirts are contrary to “African decency”.

Pre-Colonial African Dress

Before the missionaries arrived in Africa, African dress – or the lack thereof – was characterized by full or partial nudity. Children mostly went fully nude until the age of puberty after which coverings were used only around the sexual organs. These coverings – typically made of beaded skirts, grass skirts or skin/hide loin cloths, were just short enough to cover the genital areas and nothing else. In fact, the loin cloths that Africans wore before the arrival of Christianity were by far much shorter than the miniskirts commonly sighted on the streets of Nairobi today.

Luo women of Kenya wearing beaded front aprons (1902)

Luo women of Kenya wearing beaded front aprons (1902)

An abundance of vintage photographic evidence supports the fact that Africans were even more “scantily dressed” when the European Christian missionaries first came to Africa, than they are today. For many ethnic groups in Africa, the breasts and buttocks of both adult women and men often went exposed with only the reproductive organs remaining fully covered. Therefore, by true African standards, the only type of dressing that would qualify as nudity or “indecent” is that which exposes the genitalia in adult women and men.

Acculturation & Western Dress

Abolishing nudity was part of the “civilizing” mission of the missionaries; a mission that paved the way for the imposition of European colonial rule in Africa. And neither was this mission to “civilize” Africans undertaken benevolently. The European Christian missionaries would often deny food, medicine and education to as punishment for Africans who resisted the adoption of Christianity and western culture. In many instances, children would only be allowed to attend to school when fully covered in western clothing.

British Christian missionaries in Victorian dress (1866)

British Christian missionaries in Victorian dress (1866)

In his book “The Christian Home”, Peder Aage Rødseth, a missionaries who emigrated to South Africa in 1882, wrote as follows:

“When Jesus enters a home, the domestic life will totally change – also in the outward. The first step is to abolish “nudity” so that the Christian Zulu will start to wear Western clothes.”

Therefore the idea that African nudity and loincloths are immodest actually originated from the European Christian missionaries – not Africans.

Cultural Appropriation & Colonial Brainwashing

“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

– Jomo Kenyatta

But the land wasn’t the only thing they took – nor is the bible the only thing they left us. The White Man also adopted our liberal views on clothing and imposed upon us his own conservative Victorian dress culture. When we closed our eyes to pray and then opened them, the Europeans had appropriated our mini skirt and through the process of acculturation, forced us to wear clothing characteristic of the repressed colonial sexuality. And so what we regard as decent African dress is actually European and something that even Europeans themselves no longer strictly wear.

An Italian model poses for a swimwear shoot with Masai women

An Italian model poses for a swimwear shoot with Masai women

Today, mini-clad white girls – protected by the shield of whiteness, are free to stroll the streets of Africa without the risk of being stripped, due to the assumption that they are wearing their culture. However, African girls are not so lucky. When African men violently strip African women for dressing how their ancestors dressed, you realize just how effectively colonial brainwashing has taken root.

African Dress Today

Every culture is rooted in its natural environment and living in the hottest continent on earth, it is understandable why Africans historically went fully or semi-nude. Our ancestors adapted to their natural environment by dressing in the most appropriate manner for the climate they lived in. But in their zeal to police sexuality and root out practices deemed antithetical to Christianity, the Christian missionaries overlooked the origins of this dressing culture and imposed their own.

Turkana women of Kenya - present day

Turkana women of Kenya – present day

But for post-Independence Africans to continue wearing western suits under the scorching African heat, tormenting their bodies with discomfort in the name of decency, is nothing short of sheer madness. Our ancestors wore climate-suitable clothing sourced from locally available natural fibers and materials which also made their way of life more sustainable. Today, we reject our own Africa-made fabrics and materials which are suitable for the African heat, such as the kikoy, leso and khanga. We instead chase after synthetic imports that only serve to benefit western economies while stagnating local textile industries. And we do so while claiming to be defenders of African culture.

It’s also worth noting that our African ancestors did not exhibit any of the materialism and consumerism inherent in western fashion. When they reached puberty and had to cover their sexual organs, they did so with a single loin cloth. They did not stuff their huts full of loin cloths of all styles, sizes, colors, fabrics and designs for different seasons of the year as many Africans do today. Just that one piece of clothing. When it got torn, they mended it. They didn’t just dump their clothes for being ripped, stained or “out of fashion”. When I asked my grandmother the reasoning behind this, she explained:

“Clothing never really mattered. The most important thing was food.”

Fortunately, certain ethnic groups have been able to preserve their traditional dress despite the increasing westernization of Africa. It is not unusual, for instance, to encounter a bare-breasted Himba woman casually strolling down the streets of Windhoek, Namibia today. Other ethnic groups in Africa that remain in full or partial nudity today include the Turkana of Kenya, the Karamoja of Uganda and the San of Botswana.

Contemporary Laws on Dressing

“What we call “our culture” is not a set of fixed, written rules handed down by our forefathers in a leather bound book. Instead, “our culture”, like any other culture, is an interwoven set of constantly changing practices. Culture, a student of sociology will tell you, is constantly in a state of flux: it grows new ideas, it borrows from other cultures, it ceases some long-held beliefs, and it is forever changing. You see, the only permanent culture is a dead culture.”
– Ayo Sogunro

The argument that miniskirts are un-African is flawed and begs the following fundamental questions:
– How can the miniskirt be un-African when the woman wearing it IS in fact African?
– Who appointed the stripping perpetrators judge, jury and executioner on what is and what is not “African”?
– From which laws do these self-appointed morality police derive their authority on the standards of “African decency”?

Africans no longer live in closed communities in which cultural norms are handed down from one generation to the next. We live in nation states governed by written laws relating to culture, dress and decency, amongst others. The only Laws regulating dress in Kenya are enshrined in Article 27 of the Constitution of Kenya as follows:

(4) The State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, color, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, DRESS, language or birth.
(5) A person shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against another person on any of the grounds specified or contemplated in clause (4).

In light of all the contradictions outlined above, the argument that seeks to use African culture to justify misogynistic hate crimes doesn’t hold.

Aggrieved Male Entitlement

Sagging jeans is not African culture. Yet we don’t see men stripping other men naked for walking around in town with their underwear showing. That’s because strippings are not about culture, what the woman wore, what she said or how she behaved. Strippings are a gendered hate crime against women. Strippings occur when African men who feel entitled to African women’s bodies lash out when their advances are rejected. Just like rape, strippings are about African men seeking to assert their power, control and dominance over women.

A young man sagging his jeans and revealing his underwear

A young man sagging his jeans and revealing his underwear

When Africans condemn miniskirts as being “un-African”, the mind-boggling irony is hard to miss. If anything, with the exception of a few ethnic groups scattered across the continent, it is the majority of Africans today who have adopted western culture. It is ironic that all those who are quick to accuse, strip and blame women for being “indecently dressed” in western clothing are in fact casting the first stone while wearing western clothing. If the original African definition of “nudity” and “indecency” consists of exposing the sexual organs, then the only thing that is un-African in this case is the very act of stripping a woman naked.

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