DANA HUGHES is an ABC News reporter covering Africa, based in Nairobi.
This week Uganda’s ethics and integrity minister, Nsaba Buturo, held a press conference to highlight the country’s biggest moral problems: theft and embezzlement, ineffective public services, prostitution, greed and infidelity, among others. But his greatest ire was reserved for…miniskirts. Yes, miniskirts.
According to Minister Buturo, short skirts cause traffic accidents because, as he sees it, some Ugandans are “weak mentally” and will be so distracted looking at the legs of women as to cause them to crash their vehicles. He claims miniskirts are akin to being naked. "If you find a naked person you begin to concentrate on the make-up of that person and yet you are driving," he said with all seriousness to a room full of snickering reporters. "These days you hardly know who is a mother from a daughter, they are all naked." If Minister Buturo has his way, miniskirts will be made illegal, part of a law against “indecent” dressing.
While his statements provided journalists and bloggers around the world with a good laugh, the matter of how modern African women dress is not always so funny. Last March, hundreds of women in South Africa took to the streets wearing short skirts and tight shirts in protest of sexual harassment, and in some cases assault, by taxi drivers who claimed women were “asking for it” by wearing such revealing clothing.
According to media reports the protesters chanted women’s rights songs and carried signs saying “We love our minis,” “There are no shortcuts to women’s rights,” and “We aren’t road signs, you need to respect us.” But the taxi drivers taunted and whistled at the women, many saying it’s against African culture for women to wear revealing clothing, and very few have been prosecuted for sexual assault and harassment.
Traditional values have also violently clashed with Western ideals in parts of Kenya, where the Mungiki sect, often described as a criminal gang priding itself on being based on Kikuyu tribal traditions, have publicly stripped women wearing mini-skirts, pants, or any other form of dressing members find “indecent.” During the lawlessness of the country’s post-election violence earlier this year, there were reports of several women being stripped and whipped.
While the majority of African governments and educated people do not expressly condone this behavior, highly-defined gender roles continue to exist – even among the educated class. Women, particularly living in urban environments, are redefining what it means to be an “African” woman. Dress is one of the most visible battlefronts, but traditional attitudes about domestic violence, salary equality, fidelity in marriage, and relationship roles in general, are all being challenged by the “modern” African woman.
They’ll tell you though, that these changes don’t necessarily mean they want to dress and act more Western, but that like women everywhere, they want the right to define themselves on their own, African, terms.