The Problem with White People Who Dress “African”

January 6, 2015 § 17 Comments

When white people refuse to respect ownership and instead insist on using facets of a culture – such as clothing or jewelry, that does not belong to them for their financial or cultural benefit, this is tantamount to cultural appropriation. Often when this is pointed out, the common defense is that “everyone should wear whatever they want”. In other words: white people are free to wear any clothing or jewelry – including that of cultures that do not belong to them. This profound sense of entitlement felt towards other people’s cultures stems from the overall entitlement that white supremacy displays over African land, resources, etc. But should white people’s self expression come at the expense of our cultural survival?

Cultural Imperialism & Exploitation

White people who wear African clothing and jewelry often display a lack of cultural sensitivity, by completely ignoring and disregarding the significance, traditions, identities and social history behind the fabric or jewelry items. The use of designs with sacred and cultural significance, outside of their traditional meaning, historical intention and cultural context is not only disrespectful and offensive but is equivalent to the colonial occupation of African clothing and jewelry.

For instance, while it would be perfectly ok for white people to wear our clothing and jewelry at African cultural celebrations such as weddings, it wouldn’t be right to wear these every other day, while acting as if they now understand what it means to be African. No ethnic identity, including “Africanness”, can be socially constructed simply by wearing African fabric or jewelry.

The Maasai shuka is not actually "Maasai" but originally from Scotland

The Maasai shuka is not actually “Maasai” but originally from Scotland

In true “Out of Africa” fashion, many westerners who visit East Africa cannot resist the opportunity of gaining close proximity to and photo-ops with the Maasai. It is not uncommon for white people to adorn the Maasai shuka (blanket wrap) as proof of their “authentic” Maasai/ African experience. Yet there’s nothing authentic about the shuka which is in fact a tartan blanket originally introduced by the 19th century Scottish missionaries for the Maasai to cover up their “nakedness”. Being nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai never established a textile industry. Therefore this trend of wearing the Maasai shuka only benefits the business men who trade in knock offs of the original – not the Maasai.

Rarely do the fashion trends that reference African cultural practices, everyday lives, and bodies afford Africans new opportunities to actively and genuinely participate in the world. Rather, it is our rich aesthetic of boldly-printed fabric and colorful beaded jewelry that white people view as exotic, edgy, and desirable – not us. White people don’t seem to value African life but value African dress and jewelry items primarily due to their potential as avenues for profit.

Just as the colonialists who subordinated Africa, extracting everything of value from our people and territories, white people today treat African culture as a “natural resource” to extract inspiration from. By dehumanizing us as a “source of inspiration” – props to be used at their disposal, white people worsen our historical exclusion, negate our agency and further our marginalization. Implicit in this form of dehumanization is the idea that Africans don’t exist unless whites say we do – and, even then, we exist only as we are seen by whites.

Cultural Erasure & Stereotypes

The western fashion industry is notorious for rampant culture-sampling and poaching from marginalized peoples. High fashion cultural theft involves the use of non-western cultural references on the catwalk, often re-branding it as if it were their own. By robbing marginalized groups of the credit they deserve, the cultures that created a style or fashion end up being erased from the “mainstream” record.

White people often relegate Africans as props, to serve as the background in fantasy images of themselves

White people relegate Africans to the background to serve as props in fantasy images of themselves

When Urban Outfitters wrongly labeled a traditional dress worn in Ethiopia and Eritrea as a “Vintage Linen ’90 Dress”, Eritreans and Ethiopians were quick to call out this form of cultural erasure and appropriation in a petition arguing that:

“… The way the dress was labeled and presented assumes the dress is a western or American creation. … By incorrectly labeling our traditional clothing, you are in effect erasing our cultures and histories, exploiting our civilizations and artistry, and all for your own profit.”

High fashion designers are also notorious for taking markers from other people’s cultures and commodifying them by “fixing” or “improving” them, in order to make a profit. They then applaud each other for “reinventing” the cultural item in “clever” and “more elegant ways.” Although, in most cases – despite their “innovativeness”, western designers typically arrive late to African trends which have already been produced, consumed, traded, and sold for decades within the fashionable culture of African public life.

Moreover, white people’s insistence on “fixing” and “improving” on our cultural items is in fact merely affirming white cultural superiority, rather than genuinely and thoughtfully appreciating our culture. This isn’t very different from their predecessor European colonialists who sought to fix and improve on “inferior” African culture through colonial oppression and brutality under the “White Man’s Burden” banner.

Fixing or improving on our culture only serves to reinforce the negative stereotypes that imply that Africans lack in creativity and intelligence. Because pretty soon, a “fixed” or “improved” upon cultural item that originated in a marginalized group in Africa comes to be associated with dominant white culture, with white people in turn being deemed more edgy and innovative.

Power Imbalances & the “Colorblind” Myth

Typically, when white people defend acts of appropriation, they do so under the misconception that modern-day race relations exist on a level-playing field, as though racism no longer exists in our “post-racial”, “colorblind” world. Yet systematic racism does still exist – with white people holding power and privilege in a world in which Africans are systematically denied power and privilege. And as long as white people have power and privilege over African people, there can never be a truly equal and free flow of culture.

This power imbalance is evident in the attempt by Dutch Wax textile company Vlisco to sue a designer for using their patented “African print” (popularly referred to as ‘Ankara’ print in West Africa) designs – never mind that “their” designs had in fact initially been appropriated from designers in Indonesia’s wax industry. Also, from the mid-20th century, as part of an effort to make their design motifs more “authentic”, Vlisco began using indigenous African textiles to create similar motifs that would cater to the tastes of their new African customers. In other words, even while the western fashion industry profits from copying indigenous designs, they are quick to crack down on illegal copying.

An African woman wearing a dress made from Kente cloth, an authentic African fabric from Ghana

An African woman wears a dress made from Kente cloth, authentic African fabric from Ghana

For the longest time, white people have taken aspects of African culture, built businesses and careers around them, written papers about them, had royalties issued and tenures granted over African cultural items, while the people upon whom this is based are left behind in Africa with nothing. During colonialism, European textile corporations contributed to the death of traditional African ways of producing textiles and cultural designs, by flooding African markets with cheap imports. When white people are today allowed to exploit their power by profiting from the commercial use of the traditional cultural markers of African peoples, this deepens existing divides between the West and Africa, thereby preserving white dominance.

“Cultural Appreciation” & “Reverse Cultural Appropriation”

Both producers (high fashion and retail stores) and consumers (white hipsters) of culturally appropriated objects often present them as examples of their openness to diverse global sources of inspiration. As if it weren’t already bad enough that they treat Africans like a natural resource to extract value by drawing “inspiration” from our bodies, cultural practices, and cultural objects – they defend their actions by labeling them acts of “appreciating”, “admiring”, “celebrating”, even “loving” racial difference and diversity. In other words, Africans should take it as a compliment when white people wear our clothing and jewelry in the name of healthy cosmopolitanism. But this is hard to do seeing as cultural appropriation always falls short because it is imitation, fake, and the end result feels dismissive, insulting and is often poorly executed.

Other defenders of cultural appropriation point out that Africans similarly wear western business suits and collared shirts in a form of “reverse cultural appropriation”. Yet Africans cannot appropriate western dress because during colonialism, westerners decided that their culture was superior, respectable and their lifestyle the best way for Africans to live. It’s therefore rather lame to now turn around and accuse those who emulate western culture of appropriation.

Moreover, the Africans who do wear western clothing do so as a means of survival – not as an appreciation of racial diversity. Africans today have no choice but to take on “respectable” western dress culture in order to gain material and social benefits which they may lose out on if they don’t. On the other hand, because they are part of the dominant culture, when white people adopt the clothing of other cultures, this has nothing to do with survival. Its instead about white privilege.

Emaciated runway models showcase high fashion designer Moschino’s poorly executed “African” print collection

Emaciated runway models showcase high fashion designer Moschino’s poorly executed “African” print collection

For many Africans, western dress culture is an imposition unworthy of celebration, as it lacks any meaningful cultural significance. Characterized by a fashion industry that promotes materialism and individualism, and whose preferred mode of advertisement is the emaciated bodies of super models clad in unnatural fabric, western dress culture encourages consumerism and wastefulness with brand new clothing trashed simply for being “out of fashion”. Rather than abandoning their clothing to wear ours, shouldn’t white people be fixing and improving on the problems bedeviling their own dress culture?

White Privilege

Often when Africans wear their own cultural dress in the West, they are stigmatized as being unprofessional or treated with hostility. Even in Africa, Africans are met with suspicion, and sometimes violence simply for wearing clothes associated with Africans. When the 19th century European Christian missionaries abolished nudity and forced Africans to adopt conservative dress in a process of acculturation, they laid the foundation for the establishment of a conservative society and dress culture that still persists in most of Africa. Today, African men who strip African women naked for wearing miniskirts do so under the justification that African dress is more modest and decent. On the other hand, white girls enjoy the privilege of wearing miniskirts in Africa without the fear of being hassled!

Expressing “appreciation” for racial difference and diversity is therefore a privilege that only white people benefit from. Rather than being perceived as unprofessional, dangerous or suspect, white people wearing African attire are viewed as hip, worldly and fashion-forward. In satisfying their personal need for self-expression, white people who wear African print are insensitively waving around their white privilege; because for Africans who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we dress just to earn respect to stay safe and employed, our means of self-expression remain limited.

How deep is Your “Appreciation”?

If white people bothered to properly understand the meaning, context and intention of a particular cultural clothing or jewelry item, they wouldn’t touch anyone else’s culture and justify this as “appreciation”.

The only way white people can appreciate African culture is to first learn to listen to Africans. Learn to listen to Africans when they identify the very real problems they face, such as the continued looting of natural resources by western multinationals. Listen to Africans when they describe the best ways to confront their problems with white supremacy and racism. This is the only acceptable way of appreciating Africans and African culture.

Simply wearing our clothes will not promote healthy cosmopolitanism, nor serve as a celebration of racial diversity. One of the critical things required for true cosmopolitanism and honoring of racial difference is putting an end to racism. Cultural appropriation is a form of racism, and as long as racism exists, there can be no celebration of racial diversity.

There are many real and concrete steps white people can take to dismantle racism including recognizing their role in perpetuating racism, confronting their white privilege, and attacking the systems of oppression that give white people privilege in the first place.

None of these steps entail wearing the clothing or jewelry of African people.

On Max Röing, “White Morans” and the Colonization of Maa Cultures

December 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Three years ago when Max Röing decided to shake up his comfortable life in Sweden and embark upon a tough humanitarian mission to Kenya, where he’d assist in planting trees in Kajiado, little did he know he would become a Moran – or so he says. Last weekend, Max underwent the traditional Ilkiramat Eunoto rite of passage with members of the Ilchamus tribe, shedding enough of his formerly privileged western existence to become a Moran, an African warrior among the Maa people.

Having arrived in Kenya as a white voluntourist savior, to save Africans from their destructive environmental habits, 25-year old Max now returns as an Ilchamus Moran. As expected, Max’s adventures have elicited widespread outrage from critics condemning his actions as cultural appropriation. There has also been push-back from apologists labeling this “cultural exchange”. It’s not.

Max, who was welcomed and accepted by the minority Ilchamus, hails from Sweden, a country plagued by racism and intolerance towards African minorities

Max, who was welcomed and accepted by the minority Ilchamus, hails from Sweden, a country plagued by racism and intolerance towards African minorities

A common element in many African cultures is hospitality and the readiness to welcome and accept strangers. It is not uncommon for African communities to invite non-Africans to ceremonies such as weddings where they get to participate as guests. It would have been perfectly fine for Max to demonstrate his love for the rich Ilchamus culture by accepting an invitation to observe the traditional circumcision ceremony of youths graduating to manhood. However, for him to insist on taking part as an initiate alongside young Ilchamus men who are trained for this achievement their entire lives is utterly disrespectful.

In so doing, Max has reduced an entire culture to a self-help program that enables white westerners who have fallen out of love with their own culture to find meaning in their lives. Rather than an exchange of cultures, this is a case of just another attention-seeking westerner stealing the limelight at an important cultural celebration in Africa, to showcase his amazing adventure to become warrior.

True cultural exchange would entail an evenly-matched interaction of cultures, which would only be possible among equals. Yet there is no equal relationship between Max and his 5,000 fellow initiates from the minority Ilchamus ethnic group. Max’s fellow initiates are unlikely to find the same sort of belonging that he did in their homeland, as belonging is a privilege that is often denied to African minorities in Max’s own Sweden. Would an Ilchamus warrior in Sweden be embraced, received, welcomed and accepted as Max has been? Highly unlikely.

Behind the idyllic façade of an inclusive Scandinavian paradise, an egalitarian beacon of hope in an intolerant world, racial tensions constantly brew in Max’s Sweden. An Ilchamus warrior arriving in Sweden today can expect to find themselves in a struggle to find belonging in a society characterized by racial inequalities. While he may take comfort in even being allowed into Sweden (a country notorious for its low acceptance of applications from asylum-seekers) in the first place, his reverie is likely to be cut short during a stroll down central Stockholm in which he is accosted by shouts of “go back to your own country”. Even worse, he could find himself a victim of the increasing hate crimes against African-born residents of Sweden.

Disturbed by the hostility and intolerance of white Swedes, the Ilchamus Moran may decide to escape to his only sanctuary, his home in Tensta, one of the many segregated underground suburbs designed to keep Swedish people of color well hidden from view, thereby projecting the image of an all white Sweden. But in seeking comfort in the distractions of TV, he would be assaulted by populist xenophobia which is the order of the day in Swedish parliament. He would hear Swedish politicians arguing in defense of the establishment of economic divisions in Sweden based on racial hierarchies, thereby sowing the seeds for Swedish police brutality. Disgusted by the blatant racism in the Swedish political sphere, he may flick the channel only to find a rerun of the TV show Pippi Longstocking, in which Pippi – a national treasure in Sweden and the embodiment of the country’s “egalitarian spirit” – says her father is “king of the Negroes.”

Or maybe TV is not his thing, and so the Moran instead decides to visit the local library in Stockholm where he finds the openly racist Tintin in the Congo in the children’s literature section. Leaving the library in frustration, he may be forced to walk past segregated schools and arrive at a café for a coffee break. Only that at the table next to his, young white Swedes are loudly claiming the privilege to define what is and what isn’t racist for Africans in Sweden. He would then be reminded that as an African immigrant and minority in Sweden, he is expected to be grateful just for being allowed to be there.

***

The Maa people comprise the Maasai, Samburu and Ilchamus ethnic groups, whose homeland stretches from western Kenya into northern Tanzania. This land of the Maa is a popular destination for young, middle-class westerners seeking an escape, a transformational experience, a rare encounter with the “authenticity” and physical hardship they sorely miss in their own post-industrial societies – for a small price. A westerner out to experience something that their affluent lives do not offer is guaranteed to find it among the Maa: from blisters from spear hunting training, to sleeping on the ground in a communal bed of leaves and branches, and even going days without food. Westerners obsessed with the pursuit of emotional highs (and photo ops) among the exotic peoples of Africa are always quick to turn to the Maa people  – with the Maasai being a particular favorite. Once here, the westerners waste no time in using these exotic African cultures to boost their self-worth, and even profit from their romanticized trips to Africa, often through lucrative book deals.

Max Roing with Ilchamus Morans during the ceremony to initiate young Ilchamus men into manhood

Max with Morans during the ceremony to initiate young Ilchamus men into manhood

As a Kenyan woman, I have grown up aware of the importance of the rite of passage among the different cultures of Kenya, in fostering a sense of community within a given ethnic group. An important sense of unity, identification, belonging and togetherness is cultivated during this ceremony to transition youth from childhood into adulthood. Upon completion of the celebration, the young man feels well bonded and connected to his fellow initiates and integrated into the social fabric of his community. For some communities, this is a deeply religious step, with leaders offering sacrifices or prayers asking for blessings for the young people. In other communities, the spirits of the ancestors are invited to witness this occasion.

In stark contrast, western culture is characterized by the fraying of relationships, the disintegration of communities, and the fragmentation of society, all of which can be attributed to rampant individualism, manic consumerism and unrelenting careerism. It is therefore understandable why Max Röing would be eager to embrace the sense of community found in diverse African cultures such as that of the Ilchamus, which is difficult to experience in the cultures of the West. It is also easy to understand why Max would turn to the more meaningful African societal rituals, when the rites of passage typically available to young westerners in the west involve experimentation with alcohol, cigarettes and hard drugs, teen promiscuity and eating disorders.

But like many westerners before him, Max doesn’t see the irony in “finding himself” in a country and culture quite different from his own. Typically, when you lose your way, you retrace your steps to arrive at the point where you got lost, and then figure out the best way forward. You don’t get out of your car; abandon it in the middle of the highway to go take a plane to Africa. Rather than fixing the problems that plague their own fractured societies, young westerners experiencing emptiness are quick to flee into African cultures for fulfillment and as a perfect escape from their own problems that bedevil western culture and society.

In his selfish quest for his own experience, it is unlikely that Max even considered the actual needs of the Ilchamus. Did he consult Ilchamus women, to find out how they felt about a foreigner being granted the privilege of becoming a Moran, when they themselves despite being Ilchamus by blood, born and raised are denied the same? Did he take into account the fact that during colonialism in Kenya, the Maa people were some of the most affected by land grabs orchestrated by white men like himself? Is he aware that decades after “independence”, the Maa people have continued to lose their fertile grazing lands to environmental conservationists like himself whose singular aim is to protect wildlife, never mind the human cost? Did he consider that his photo-ops surrounded by Morans may only end up doing more harm than good, by promoting stereotypes that fuel the white-savior industrial complex?

Or was he just here to take?

The absurdity of Max Röing’s warrior adventures among the Ilchamus is further compounded by the original media report which reads like a parody worthy of The Onion:

“My name is Max Lemeyan Le Kachuma from the Ilchamus tribe and a clan called Iltoimai,” he confidently introduces himself as he sips sour milk from a cup. He then unwraps a polythene with round, yellow substances. He picks a handful and pours some onto his milk.”

How could Max fail to see the ironies that would entail when, after embracing poverty and hardship, he would have to return to his previous life of luxury? Will Swedish (let alone Kenyan) airport security allow him onto the plane with his warrior sword strapped to his brown belt, let alone the polythene bag with round, yellow substances he uses to garnish his sour milk? Will he be wearing his Moran shuka dress during the wintry months in Sweden or was this just a fun costume to wear but take off before heading to the airport? And what will his vegan pals in Stockholm think of “his” new cultural tradition of suffocating a goat to death and drinking its warm blood with herbs?

His Moran title secured, Max can now leave “his” Ilchamus tribe and return to his wealthy, privileged lifestyle in Sweden armed with photos as proof of how he chose hardship and survived it, how he deliberately embraced poverty and its discomforts as an indication of his superiority of character. He now has a story to tell that will place him in the ranks of the fearless and worldly-wise of Europe.

Yet the physically and mentally challenging tasks required to become a Moran are easy to endure for a couple of weeks when you have the comfort of knowing that this sort of hardship will not characterize your future way of life. But young Ilchamus men do not enjoy similar privilege. Unlike young whites like Max for whom this is just an “experience” from which they can walk away at any time, for the Ilchamus, this is their way of life. And therein lies Max’s profound disrespect.

By now claiming to be part of the Ilchamus tribe, the Iltoimai clan and the Ilmeng’ati age-group, Max seeks to create the impression that he belongs; that he is now one of them and therefore understands what it means to be an Ilchamus Moran. While the experience may have been “real” for Max, he should recognize it for what it actually was: symbolic. The idea that anyone can come in to a society, assume their practices and become a Moran in a couple of weeks is absurd, insulting and disrespectful to Ilchamus culture in particular and to African cultures in general.

#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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