I had been informed of Swaziland’s intolerance for women in short skirts or revealing clothes but to witness it firsthand hand was a totally different experience. Now what I saw was not a skimpily clad daughter of Adam but a grandmother who berated two young girls for wearing short skirts and revealing tops. Considering the case of a girl who was publicly stripped at a taxi rank in Manzini (one of Swaziland’s cities) for wearing a mini skirt and her thighs scrubbed with a brush, mini skirts are probably the next greatest act of treason in Swaziland, second only to the crime of insulting the king.
For a country like Swaziland which holds the honour of being the world’s last standing absolute monarchy, the situation is especially ironic because every August in the same Kingdom, thousands of young girls participate in the highly celebrated reed dance during which they appear topless and wear tiny things which reveal more skin than the condemned mini-skirts. It is therefore hypocritical for Swazis to insist that women should not wear mini-skirts on the grounds that it is revealing. This reservation is widespread to the point that the Police in 2012 blocked women dressed in mini-skirts from demonstrating against rape. More worrisome is the notion in some quarters that wearing skimpy clothes justifies rape. So while the government should be arresting perpetrators of sex crimes, it is instead placing the onus of rape prevention on the women who wear supposedly skimpy clothes.
When I conversed with some men in Swaziland about their intolerance for the mini skirt vis-à-vis the reed dance dressing, their response was that ‘the reed dance is our culture’. That reasoning is flawed because if the said men can allege that the reed dance is their culture and no sexual connotation flows from the nudity, then it can be argued that they after all can exercise self control and restraint if they wanted to in cases of the mini skirt. I know a lot of Swazis are proud of the reed dance culture – women inclusive and I am not all about abandoning that cultural practice (even though I have reservations about it). My premise here is more about the double standards. Why tell a woman that she cannot wear her mini skirt because you will as a result have urges but find nothing wrong with topless women? How would men respond if women told them not to wear shorts or fitted shirts because it also gives them urges?
Truth is, long skirts and full garbs don’t reduce the rape statistics, reasonable, self controlled and disciplined people do!
This problem does not exist only in Swaziland. From Brazil to India and even Uganda, women are fighting the battle of control over the right to choose what to wear. In 2012, India’s Director General of Police had said that women who dress in ‘flimsy and fashionable’ clothing are inviting men to harass them. Meanwhile in Uganda, the country’s 2014 anti-pornography law has the effect of banning women from wearing mini-skirts. The fact that women’s dressing has become the subject of legislation while men are not, serves to accentuate the inequality which the world has fought hard against for too long. and has tried to get rid of through conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Meanwhile, not only has Swaziland accented to CEDAW, but Section 20 of its 2005 constitution also upholds the principle of non-discrimination and equality. It therefore becomes unconstitutional for agents of the state or even individuals to continually subject women to discriminatory practices based on what they wear. States are not allowed to pick and choose which rights to promote or protect, neither can culture be invoked as an excuse to contravene human rights. It is for this reason that the CEDAW and the African Women’s Protocol particularly have provisions which call for customary practices that violate human rights to be transformed in order to remove their discriminatory element.
But if these will not work maybe it is time to introduce a rather rash provision across all international treaties, which I shall propose to read as follows:
‘Any man that uses a woman’s dressing as justification for rape shall be guilty of a double measure of the sentence prescribed for the crime of rape’
If you consider that proposition ridiculous, that is exactly how preposterous it sounds when a man claims to have raped a woman because she wore a mini-skirt.
Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Bobby Deal
Adebayo Okeowo is a human rights lawyer whose experience traverses both government and private organizations. His most recent engagement was as Program Officer for the Nigeria office of Global Rights – a human rights organization headquartered in Washington. He is the founder of the White Code Centre and is currently studying at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.