Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Problem with Women's Rights in the 21st Century: the Case of Malawi

After reading some reflections from a recent takingitglobal.com article, I was struck and angered by a number of comments. In the absence of a constructive forum to directly challenge the author's article (see below), I decided to use my own little platform to foster dialogue on the issue of women's rights today. In summary, the author refers to the stripping of women that occurred here in Malawi this past January because they didn't dress within the traditional cultural norms (e.g., long skirts not trousers). The article continues by reasoning through why such a situation occurred, detailing the problem of women dressing inappropriately but still trying to advocate for women's rights. If Taiwo and I could have a discussion, this is what I would say:

I am currently a Malawi resident and can attest to the fear and confusion that the attacks on women earlier this year produced. From several informal discussions with Malawians, however, the issue was not just about women's rights or clothing but instead about a majority exercising control and releasing anger in a domain they felt they could control. Why else would the focus be on women's clothing all of a sudden instead of an anger toward fuel, foreign currency, and food shortages nationwide? 

Your choice of words like "indecent" and "obscene" fall into the same trap that those men who tore clothing off women here were in. Yes, there is a socially-acceptable way to dress for each occasion, and yes, there are consequences (good or bad) for however one chooses to dress, but if we seek to break the mold that justifies treating people differently based on judgement or awareness, then we can't fault people based on something as shallow as the way they dress. 

I also take issue with your statement that: 

"Unfortunately, at the same event I met some girls from Africa that dressed in very obscene dresses (micro mini-skirts), bringing shame to Africa. Funnily enough, the ladies from the west were more decent than these African ladies. The fact is that mini-skirts and even trousers are never a part of our cultural heritage. Some girls do not know the difference between bedroom tops and outdoor dresses."

Why is it funny or strange that Western women would be "more decently" dressed? And whose place is it to determine what is appropriate and what is not? Why is it difficult to acknowledge the dynamic nature of culture whereby "Western" styles  are now universal, and who says that mini-skirts and trousers were a part of Western culture? If you do the research, you'll see that evidence suggests the wearing of pants for work-related purposes possibly as early as 19th century and during World War II but not truly for fashion purposes until as late as the 1970s. Do the math, and we see that it took countries like the U.S. hundreds of years to morph into what we now call "Western culture," a process that younger countries such as on the African continent have powered through in a fraction of the time. 

My final comment is to refer to a Facebook post that was circulating this past February, which for me captures my very concerns with this commentary.

Similar to marxisbros reasoning, the problem with this article is that its focus is flawed. Why is the author "imagin[ing] the issue of dressing and why it incurred the wrath of vendors to the extent of stripping women naked for not following cultural norms" instead of realizing that there is nothing that could ever warrant the treatment of such women. 

The author rightfully points out that "stripping women naked on the street is not the solution to the problem because it even compounds the problem for the society." But at the same time, the author wrongfully implies that the problem is the way these women were dressing. In what world in the year 2012 should I not be entitled to wear a pair of jeans based on my "cultural heritage" or the color of my skin? Who has the right to suggest that pants are "indecent," "obscene," or "bedroom clothes." I take issue with the author's article and see it as a step back for women of Africa and the Diaspora, not as dialogue on the way forward. And I pose a challenge to men and women out there to focus on the causes of global injustice, not just the symptoms. 

Article in question (sent through takingitglobal.com)

by Taiwo Adesoba 

“No Woman, No Cry” is a 1974 reggae song by Bob Marley and The
Wailers. The original title is “No Woman, Nuh Cry” in Jamaica tongue.
The “nuh”, is a shorter vowel sound for “no”, and corresponds to the
short form “don’t”. The song tends to persuade women not to cry and
reassure them that everything will be alright.

A lot has been said, proposed, advocated, and intended regarding
mainstreaming of gender human rights in Africa but nothing much has
been achieved. In African culture and even religion, men are dominant,
natural leaders, and divinely positioned to rule. There is nothing
anybody can do about this. However, equity is not a function of
religion, culture or social norms, but conscience and tenderness of

Recently, hundreds of people protested in Blantyre in Malawi over
attacks on women wearing trousers and mini-skirt by vendors. Some
women were in January 2012 beaten and stripped naked on the streets of
Lilongwe and Blantyre for not wearing traditional dress. The protests
were attended by former vice president Joyce Banda (Current
president). According to the BBC, until 1994, women in the deeply
conservative south African country were banned from wearing trousers
or mini-skirts under the autocratic rule of Hastings Banda.

In my reflections, I imagined the issue of dressing and why it
incurred the wrath of vendors to the extent of stripping women naked
for not following cultural norms. I have discovered that many of the
things we do are rooted either in our religion or culture. The kinds
of food we eat, dresses we wear, language we speak, and such and such.
No culture is completely good or bad but every culture must be
respected. However, you cannot respect what you do not understand. Due
to globalization or westernization, the very beautiful culture of
Africa is fading, unfortunate! Young people nowadays do not understand
and appreciate their cultural heritage that are based on respect for
elders, decency in dressing, fidelity, brotherly love, etc. All of
these have been traded for life-wrecking characters such as indecent
dressing, disrespect of elders, political thuggery and such like.

Indecent dressing has cost women a great deal of trouble, particularly
rape. You can imagine the consequence of rape such as unwanted
pregnancy, HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infections, emotional trauma, and
other terrible corollaries. The rejection of indecent dressing is
therefore very beneficial to women.

You may then ask me who is to blame. The family, of course. You cannot
have your cake and eat it. An irresponsible father will likely produce
an irresponsible son, “Like Father, Like Son” or “Like Mother, Like
Daughter” as they say. In Africa, dressing is an important part of our
life. It makes us unique and it is our pride. I personally experienced
this when I went for a conference in an African country. On the day I
wore local attire, the delegates from the west were amazed at how
beautiful African dresses are. Also, a black woman wearing a Kaftan
(like gown) was admired by other women from the West. Unfortunately,
at the same event I met some girls from Africa that dressed in very
obscene dresses (micro mini-skirts), bringing shame to Africa. Funnily
enough, the ladies from the west were more decent than these African
ladies. The fact is that mini-skirts and even trousers are never a
part of our cultural heritage. Some girls do not know the difference
between bedroom tops and outdoor dresses. Many parents have failed to
show their wards the right path to thread, acceptable behaviours, life
skills; and so what else can we expect other than what we are seeing?
Many young people do not understand their family values because they
do not actually have one.

On the contrary, stripping women naked on the street is not the
solution to the problem because it even compounds the problem for the
society. That is very unfair because it reduces the worth of the
victims and the disrespects the dignity of womanhood. I do not know if
there are legal instruments that protect women against such attacks
anyway, but such can be formulated and advocated for by civil
societies in Malawi to prevent a re-occurrence. Women and girls should
be treated fairly at all times because they are a blessed, wonderful
and fragile sexual category whose existence has influenced the
stability of our societies over the years. Women are blessed with
unique qualities such as goodwill, character, responsibility which we
must all recognize and appreciate. They do not deserve such inhumane

We have to go back to our roots. Let children and youth be aware of
and respect our cultural heritage. Every family should have values
which must be inculcated into every member of the family. Many of the
youths in Africa do not even understand the tenets of our existence.
They are misled very much through media, internet, travels etc.

I’m always a proponent of gender equity and will always advocate for
fair treatment of girls and women in my country and throughout the
world. Nooooooo Woman, Don’t Cryyyyyyy!